Las Vegas Sun

April 16, 2014

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Ex-felons push for clarity in work regulations

Jeffrey Henderson, a former cocaine dealer turned chef at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, wants the Nevada Gaming Control Board and local government to clearly define what criteria governs the issuing of work cards and gaming work cards to ex-felons.

Henderson, who made his plea at Thursday's Nevada Gaming Control Board meeting, also hopes the gaming industry, Nevada's largest employer, will make a greater effort to hire ex-felons, saying this could set the tone for other industries' hiring practices towards ex-felons.

Henderson, who was convicted on drug charges in 1988 and spent nearly a decade in federal prison, discovered a passion for cooking while serving as a prison chef. But he said his initial foray into the culinary world was marked with many rejections when he tried to find employment with several major Las Vegas Strip casinos, mainly because of his felony background.

Though Henderson was eventually hired by Caesars Palace, he said his case was more an exception than the rule. He said many ex-felons, who've asked for his advice on employment, are confused about the criteria used by employers in their hiring practices and complain of being "arbitrarily" denied work cards and gaming work cards.

Work cards are issued by local governments for some non-gaming-related jobs, while gaming work cards are issued by the Control Board to those in the gaming industry.

Work cards, which have been around for decades, began as a requirement for casino employees. But now the cards, which in Las Vegas are issued by Metro police after a background check, are an employment requirement for at least 30 occupations in the city including childcare.

"Can ex-offenders get gaming work cards? Can people be denied gaming work cards based on their arrest records?" asked Gary Peck, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "There needs to be some written policy and rules that provide guidance so that people can't be denied gaming work cards and workcards based on arbitrary decisions by the gaming authorities or local government."

"There's a need to tighten up rules relating to who should get work cards and who should be denied and define what crimes and what kinds of convictions and at what point in time these convictions are potential disqualifiers for a work card," Peck said.

The ACLU is part of the group of civil rights activists, religious leaders and state lawmakers who spoke at the Control Board Thursday and plan to pursue the issue at various city councils, the Clark County Commission and eventually the 2003 Legislature.

But Control Board member and enforcement expert Bobby Siller disputed the ACLU's claims, saying the board has issued gaming work cards to ex-felons employed in the gaming industry.

"There's nothing in the (gaming) statutes that precludes ex-felons from applying for a work card. But the regulation states that if you're a convicted felon, your work card can be challenged based on the nature of the crime and how long ago the crime was committed," he said.

"Even after your application is denied, you can still appeal and bring in character witnesses to support your case. This will be reviewed by the (board's) Enforcement Division, and then the Control Board rules on it. And if the application is still denied, you can bring it to the Gaming Commission. And if you're still not satisfied, you can go to court," he said.

But Eddie White, a case manager with the Las Vegas Reentry Program -- part of a national pilot program launched in eight states to help rehabilitate prisoners and ex-felons -- said it's been an uphill task helping ex-felons find employment.

"Since the program was launched in Las Vegas in 2000, more than 400 ex-felons were recorded with the program. But less than one-third of them are employed so far," she said.

Henderson agreed.

"We want more training and life-skills programs to be set up for ex-offenders to better market themselves to employers. We want to get something on the record from the Gaming Board and the industry on what jobs they will or won't hire ex-felons for and we want an opportunity to prove ex-felons can be productive citizens."

But John Redlein, assistant city attorney in Las Vegas, disagreed.

"There are crimes that permit the government to refuse a work card application -- but there are no convictions that would be a universal disqualifier for work cards," he said. "The ACLU claims people with criminal convictions can't get work cards. That's absolutely untrue."

"The grounds for denial aren't the same for every work card application and the process by which the government reviews work card applicants involves a connection between their prior misconduct and nature of trade they want to engage in," he said.

For instance, an individual who's convicted of child molestation will not be hired in the child care industry but could be hired as a blackjack dealer, he said.

"Certain crimes like crimes of moral turpitude where you intentionally harm another, or calculated theft or fraud, is what disqualifies an ex-felon for work cards because the crime shows they can't be trusted," he said.

Redlein also dismissed claims that arrests alone were grounds for denial of work cards by local governments.

"Arrests don't count for anything. Arrests alone are not grounds for denial of work cards. Only if you're convicted of a crime of moral turpitude can your work card application be denied. For instance, drunk driving is not a crime of moral turpitude, but petty larceny is. Work cards can be denied on that basis," he said.

"It would be too dangerous to the integrity of the games if work cards were abolished. It's important that games are honest, otherwise people won't come to Las Vegas and that'll affect the economy," Redlein said. "Rehabilitation of ex-felons is a minor component of the criminal justice system compared with protection of the public and punishment of criminals."

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, is working on a bill for the 2003 Legislature to address the issue.

"Once felons are released from prison, have they not paid their debt to society?" she asked. "We're not saying all ex-felons should be automatically rehired. We're asking that jobs should not be denied them if the crime isn't associated with the job and that employers need to take into consideration the length of time passed since the crime was done."