Editorial: Is a felon fit for office? Austin voters deserve to decide

Two years ago, the Austin City Council decided that local employers should get to know job applicants first before deciding whether a criminal record puts them out of the running.

Last week, the Austin city clerk made much the same call about City Council candidate Lewis Conway Jr.

In consultation with city attorneys, clerk Jannette Goodall determined Conway is eligible to appear on the November ballot for the city council seat in Northeast Austin’s District 1, even though he is a convicted felon.

Goodall made the right decision by interpreting a murky state statute in a way that gives Austin voters the power to pick the candidate they believe is best suited for office.

RELATED: Austin candidate Lewis Conway’s run asks when a criminal sentence ends

Texas is one of 36 states where felons automatically regain their voting rights after completing their sentence, but one of at least 20 states where they cannot run for state or local office without clearing another hurdle. Their options under Texas law: obtain a pardon from the governor, who grants such requests sparingly, or become “otherwise released from the resulting disabilities” of their conviction.

But neither the law nor the courts have spelled out how that second option is supposed to work.

In a meeting last week with Goodall and other city officials, Conway’s attorney Ricco Garcia argued that “resulting disabilities” refers to the loss of freedom while a person is incarcerated or on parole or probation. Once a person has completed his sentence, Garcia argued, those “disabilities” disappear.

The Texas secretary of state disagrees with that interpretation, suggesting instead that some kind of judicial release is needed.

City officials declined to share their reasoning, but ultimately Goodall found no reason to deny Conway a spot on the ballot.

It was a milestone moment, even if the Austin clerk’s interpretation doesn’t create a binding precedent and could be challenged in court. The secretary of state’s office said it couldn’t recall another time a felon who has completed his prison sentence has made it onto a state or local ballot, though a number of convicts have run for office while their case was on appeal. (It’s worth noting federal law doesn’t prevent felons from running for Congress, and a number of them have.)

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Garcia told us he’s heard from ex-cons in the Dallas, Houston and Galveston areas who wanted to run for local office but couldn’t find a legal path. This hurdle for potential candidates disproportionately affects African-Americans, as blacks are incarcerated in Texas at more than three times the rate of Hispanics and whites, according to data compiled by the Sentencing Project.

That’s a shame. Texas has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the country, and we know that factors such as poverty, poor educational opportunities and substance abuse not only contribute to crime but make it harder for people to successfully rejoin society after a prison term.

We can’t fix those problems without listening to those who have firsthand experience with the criminal justice system.

“The people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Reggie Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who sometimes cites his own experiences in prison when lobbying lawmakers.

Conway has also drawn on his personal experience in pressing for measures like Austin’s 2016 “fair chance hiring” ordinance, which bars local employers from checking an applicant’s criminal history until a conditional job offer is made. He and others noted that people with a record struggle to land decent jobs because employers often use that fact to screen out applicants, depriving them of the opportunity to present their qualifications or explain the circumstances of their arrest.

ALSO READ: To help fight recidivism, remove obstacles to employment

Conway was convicted in 1992 of manslaughter for fatally stabbing an acquaintance in a dispute over money and drugs. He served eight years in prison and 12 on parole. Most recently he’s worked as a Grassroots Leadership organizer who advocates for criminal justice reform and funding for community health care, schools and job training.

Conway is one of six people vying to replace Council Member Ora Houston, who is not seeking re-election in District 1. He deserves the same chance as any other candidate to make his pitch to voters.

Likewise, voters deserve to know whether candidates are fit for the job. That’s why Statesman reporters do their best to check the court records of political candidates to see if any have a history of fraud, a failure to meet their own financial obligations or a record of endangering others. When such information is available, it’s included in campaign stories that also provide candidates’ professional backgrounds and positions on key issues.

We recognize that running for public office isn’t on the to-do list for most people, let alone those being released from prison or completing their parole. And many ex-cons aren’t cut out for public office.

But for people who have turned from a life of crime to one of service and advocacy, elected office could be an opportunity to put painful life lessons toward better public policy. They should be allowed to offer themselves to voters.

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