What happened to Johnny Ramos is criminal
They took away his job, all because of a crime he committed 34 years ago
JOHNNY RAMOS SAYs he did “a lot of stupid things” when he was a teenager growing up in Boston’s South End. He says he never used drugs or carried a gun, but still got into plenty of trouble. At the age of 17, he got arrested for fleeing from police officers after an incident involving a “hot car.” While on probation, Ramos and a friend were caught stripping parts off of what he says was an abandoned car in a garage in the South End. He was convicted of breaking and entering, a felony, and a judge sentenced him to three months at the state’s minimum security prison farm in Concord “to teach me a lesson.”
When he got out, Ramos says he turned his life around. He picked up odd work cleaning buildings and some day labor before landing a job at a private security firm around 1988, though he’s a bit fuzzy on the exact start, which he said could have been several years earlier. Ramos says he always dreamed about being a police officer after graduating from English High School, but realized he would never be able to get a gun permit with his felony conviction. He says his job as a security officer was the next best thing: It gave him stability and a steady paycheck after years of trying to find both.
“Even though this security job is low-paying and everything, it kept me out of so much trouble,” says Ramos, who started on the 4-to-midnight shift. “I would come home at 12 and everybody would tell me, ‘You just missed it. Everybody got scooped up [by the police.]’”
But the past that he thought was long dead and buried caught up with him in December. Ramos, who turns 52 in May, says he received a call from a State Police trooper who told him he had to quit his job because of a 1960 law barring anyone convicted of a felony or an offense involving moral turpitude from working as a security guard. Just like that, he was out of a job, left without health care for himself and his son, and forced onto public assistance. Five of his colleagues at the security firm, Longwood Security Services in the Back Bay, were also terminated because of their criminal backgrounds. One was in his 70s and, like Ramos, had a record that began and ended in his teens.
While the State Police have launched an internal investigation into the trooper who forced the Longwood employees to quit because she may have violated protocols and procedures, a spokesman for the law enforcement agency says state law is clear that someone with a felony conviction cannot work as a security guard. Still, the spokesman, David Procopio, says the ruling was difficult.
“We recognize that some of these people were longstanding employees with good records of service with Longwood and were well-respected and highly-regarded at the institutions where they were assigned,” Procopio says.
Carmen Griggs, dean of students at The Boston Conservatory where Ramos worked for the past decade, referred most questions about Ramos to Longwood, saying the company is a contractor that hires its own employees. But, Griggs says, if Longwood hired Ramos back, the school would also welcome his return despite his past. “If they felt comfortable having John back, we would be comfortable having him back,” she says.
The case puts a stark spotlight on the issue of how long criminal offenders should be penalized for the crimes they commit. In Ramos’s case, he lost a job he had held for 25 years because of a conviction 34 years ago when he was 18. Gov. Deval Patrick succeeded in passing legislation in 2010 restricting how far back employers could look into the criminal lives of job applicants. But Patrick’s law did not overturn the 50-year-old statute prohibiting security firms from hiring those convicted of felonies.
Top Patrick aides say there is no conflict between the governor’s position and the 50-year-old law, but US officials say state laws like the one in Massachusetts may be in violation of federal statutes prohibiting discrimination. A pending case in Pennsylvania, with a fact pattern strikingly similar to the situation involving Ramos, has led to the issuance of guidelines barring security firms from denying jobs to anyone based solely on whether they have a criminal record.
“Most employers understand those who have served their time deserve a chance,” says Eugene Ferraro, an expert in ethics and security who is a consultant and member of ASIS International, a security industry association. “The law is the law and it’s likely the law is defective in this case. This sounds like it smacks of unfairness [but] the law often conflicts with common sense.”
In July of 2010, Gov. Patrick signed into law a major reform of the Criminal Offender Records Information statute, one that he and advocates insist will provide protection for the public while at the same time breaking down the barriers for former offenders to find employment and housing and create some distance from their past.
“Successful crime fighting also means reducing the risk that former inmates will return to crime by helping them rebuild their lives,” Patrick said when he first unveiled his plan to overhaul the CORI system in 2008.
The new CORI law changes the length of time a criminal record is available to employers. Under the old CORI law, felony records going back 15 years, unless they were sealed, would be given to employers performing a background check on job applicants. Under the new CORI law, felony records are only available for 10 years after an offender is released from custody and probation. The changes do not affect people convicted of murder, manslaughter, or sex offenses; their records are permanently available.
Under those rules, Ramos thought he could legally answer “no” when asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony. So when he was asked by Longwood to fill out an affidavit about his past in January 2012, that’s what he did. In the box that asked if he’d ever been convicted of a crime, he checked “no,” he says. “They’ve asked things like that before,” says Ramos. “All they wanted before was information from three years back, five years back. That was the law back then.”
Ramos says that more than 11 months after he filled out the questionnaire, which he says he barely remembers, he got a call from State Trooper Denise Doherty, who accused him of lying on his form because he failed to note his felony conviction at age 18. Ramos says Doherty told him that he had to quit his job or face charges of perjury. Doherty, at the time, was a member of the State Police Division of Standards and Training, which oversees the licensing of security companies and private investigators. When Ramos refused to resign without some sort of formal written explanation, he says she threatened him.
“She said, ‘If you want something in writing, we’ll send you something. We’ll send you a letter to go to court for perjury,’” Ramos says. Undeterred, Ramos reported for work, but his supervisor informed him Doherty had called and the company was forced to take him off the payroll. Ramos says his supervisor told him he was sorry he had to let Ramos go, but his hands were tied by the law. He also told Ramos about the other workers who were let go.
Doherty, who refused to talk to a reporter when contacted at her office, may have been acting inappropriately and outside her authority. Procopio says state police officials regularly audit security companies to ensure they are in compliance with the law. The process is for a commanding officer to assign a case to an investigator, who then goes to the security office to make sure the license is current, valid, and properly displayed. The trooper then asks for a list of employees and, if a background check flags any of them, the trooper informs his or her supervisor, who then calls the licensee and informs them about the existence of ex-offenders on the payroll.
Doherty, however, undertook the audit on her own initiative and, rather than calling her commander with the findings, called each of the individual employees, according to officials. Only after Ramos refused to quit did Doherty call Longwood president John Connelly to force his hand, Ramos and Connelly confirmed. Procopio says Doherty is now under investigation.
State audits of security firms are fairly frequent and routine. Last year, Procopio says, the department’s Certification Unit performed 125 audits at security companies. Procopio says investigators typically find no more than “one or two” violations of the hiring law over the course of a year, but last year Longwood was the only company with violations. He could not say why the long-time employees at Longwood were never flagged during audits in prior years or why there were so many.
Connelly, Longwood’s president, says the company has never been audited in the 27 years since he started it. Connelly says he checks the criminal backgrounds of the employees he hires as well as those workers he absorbs when he buys another firm, as he did in Ramos’s case. He says employees also sign an affidavit swearing they do not have a criminal record.
Connelly couldn’t explain why Ramos’s record never turned up, but he says he was told by state officials over the years that his access to criminal records for background checks was limited. He also acknowledges he relies on others to do background checks on employees. “Certainly, human error plays a role in everything,” he says.
A lawyer for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security suggested Connelly should not have any reduced access to criminal records. He says security firms are granted the same unchecked access to unsealed adult criminal backgrounds as law enforcement, nuclear power plants, or public housing agencies.
A spokesman for the public safety office says there is “no conflict” between the revised CORI statute promoted by the governor and the 1960 law placing a blanket prohibition on the hiring of anyone at a security firm who has been convicted of a felony. He says security officers and employees sign affidavits under the pains and penalties of perjury stating they have never been convicted of a felony.
“Applicants for jobs are required to tell the truth,” Terrel Harris wrote in an email. “State law says for one to be a security guard (special police), one cannot have a felony conviction. They should have answered yes on their application. Why they were never flagged is a question for the company to answer. As for philosophical conflict, there is no conflict with the administration’s philosophy guiding changes in the CORI laws. Law enforcement officers are and should be held to the highest standards.”
LAWS CALLED INTO QUESTION
State laws barring anyone with a felony from holding a job as a security guard are coming under scrutiny from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission says such laws, like the one in Massachusetts, may result in discrimination if they are used by companies to deny employment to job applicants. The agency says such blanket refusals to hire someone with a record tend to penalize minorities disproportionately.
The federal agency began looking into the issue after receiving a complaint from a man who was turned down for a job as a security guard in Pennsylvania because he had been twice convicted of burglary. G4S Secure Systems, one of the country’s largest security firms, refused to hire the man, citing a Pennsylvania law that is almost identical to the law in Massachusetts.
EEOC officials and other advocates testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights in December that security firms can check a job applicant’s background and make a case that a criminal record could adversely impact his ability to perform the job. But they said a criminal record should not be a preemptive factor in the hiring decision. The officials also said that the federal Civil Rights Act, specifically Title VII, which bars discrimination based on disparate treatment, trumps state and local statutes.
“Under Title VII, the mere fact of having a criminal record should not automatically, and without consideration, bar a person from all future employment,” Carol Miaskoff, the acting associate legal counsel at EEOC, told the Civil Rights commissioners.
The case involving G4S has not been resolved yet, but the EEOC has already issued guidelines for employers to follow. The new guidelines tell employers they could be subject to claims of discrimination should they use criminal records as the sole reason to deny employment because of the “disparate” impact on minorities.
The qualifications for security jobs are minimal, with a high school diploma being the most common requirement and little to no prior experience expected. The pay is commensurate with the minimal education requirements, mostly in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Federal officials say minorities, who often have less access to higher education, are attracted to security jobs, yet they often have criminal records which disqualify them.
The EEOC guidance cites race-based disparities in convictions and incarcerations and also refers to a number of studies showing minorities have a harder time finding jobs because of their criminal records. The EEOC says employers should take into consideration the individual circumstances of each applicant, such as the facts surrounding the conviction, the number of convictions, how old the offender was at the time of the conviction, and how long before the job application the conviction occurred.
Ferraro, the ethics and security expert, says the EEOC action creates a Catch-22 for security companies. On the one hand, he says, it’s “common sense” that sensitive positions that require trust should be staffed by those with no criminal background. But he says there are security jobs that could be filled by someone who may have a record but has the potential to be a valuable asset.
“It’s a dilemma for the employer; which battle do they want to fight: the state, which may take their license, or a federal employment action?” he asks. “Most employers, though, would go out of their way to hire someone with a record if they otherwise might be a qualified applicant.”
The armed forces do not have a blanket prohibition on enlistees having criminal records, granting military applicants nearly 4,000 “misconduct” waivers during fiscal 2011, including 32 for felony convictions. “While present standards are high, we have not adopted a zero-defect mentality,” says Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Defense Department. “Everyone makes mistakes. We evaluate each applicant from a whole-person perspective.”
As CommonWealth went to press, Ramos asked state officials to seal his criminal record in an effort to shield his teenage transgression from public view. The state’s probation commissioner approved his request and Longwood Security invited him to return to work. But Ramos says he’s not sure the change will work, for good reason.State Police officials say that, even though employers cannot see sealed convictions, the record would still be open to law enforcement officials doing security firm screenings. Told about Ramos’s efforts to seal his record, Harris, the public safety spokesman, says the strategy is unlikely to be successful. He says eventually the State Police will audit Longwood and discover the sealed record contains a felony, which would trigger a notification that Ramos cannot be working as a security guard.
If that happens, Ramos’s past, once again, would come back to haunt him.