At first, Thomas Daniels thought he was being called to the warden’s wing of the federal prison in Fairton, New Jersey, to discuss one of the educational programmes he ran for fellow inmates.
He had created a curriculum with courses on credit and finance he thought might help other inmates make a living, and stay out of prison, after their release. Instead, when he met with the warden on Dec 18, 2015, he learned President Obama had commuted his sentence, life plus 30 for cocaine distribution.
“Me and the warden were hugging in the joint and everything,” Daniels, 54, remembered with a broad smile. He was among 1,385 who received commutations from Obama, the most issued by any American president.
After 20 years, 5 months, and 10 days in prison, Daniels became free in a world with iPhones, Airbnb, and Uber. An enterprising man, even while in prison Daniels got a GED, took college courses, maintained credit cards, and held on to a property in Philadelphia. He started driving for Uber in 2016.
“I used to tell them I was locked up,” he said. “They used to enjoy the story.”
That ended in April, when Uber sent him a letter telling him that because of some drug convictions – not the ones Obama had commuted – the San Francisco-based tech company was cancelling his access to its app. The company cited eight criminal convictions related drug possession and distribution in 1990, 1995, and 1996.
“If I’m good enough to get clemency from the president who are you to hold something against me?” Daniels recalled thinking. “I proved myself worthy of being a free man. I haven’t reoffended. What do you want for me?”
In response to questions this week, the company asserted that Delaware state law bars people with criminal histories like Daniels’ from driving for ride share businesses like Uber and Lyft. Daniels, a Philadelphia resident, didn’t received that detailed an explanation, though, and says he rarely drove in Delaware anyway, other than a few trips with passengers picked up at Philadelphia International Airport.
Delaware recognises that some drug offenses can be considered a violent crime, but it was unclear whether Daniels’ Pennsylvania convictions fell under that umbrella.
None of the convictions cited by Uber, or the federal offenses affected by Obama’s commutation, were violent crimes. As a result, banning a driver for the reasons given could violate Pennsylvania legislation governing the ride share industry and a Philadelphia ordinance that restrict how a person’s criminal history can be used to deny employment.
Daniels isn’t the first person to face this obstacle with a ride share company. The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations also has open cases involving claims that Uber or Lyft violated the city’s recently enhanced ordinance that limits the role criminal histories can play in employment, said Rue Landau, that agency’s executive director.
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a non-profit that helps people recently incarcerated find work, has about a dozen active cases with people who say they were wrongly denied employment by a ride share company due to their past, said Jamie Gullen, supervising attorney in the employment unit for CLS.
“We’ve seen cases like this from Uber,” Gullen said. “It’s a very common problem that our clients have when they have criminal records.”
Finding work after incarceration is an ongoing problem for the 70 to 100 million people in the United States with criminal histories, experts say. Having a criminal record hurts a person’s chances of finding a job more than other stigmas like long-term unemployment, receiving public assistance, or having a GED, according to a 2014 study from the Centre for American Progress. That study stated 60% of people who were incarcerated were still unemployed a year after their release.
The 2016 legislation that legalised ride share companies in Pennsylvania permit a seven-year criminal history look back, though convictions for certain crimes older than that can also be considered. A driver candidate can be disqualified by convictions for sex offenses, certain violent crimes, and acts of terror at any point in a person’s life, according to the law.
The offenses Uber cited in barring Daniels from the app aren’t included in the list of disqualifying crimes.
Philadelphia law bars employers from considering any criminal offenses more than seven years old when making a decision about filling a job, unless the offense has some direct bearing on the job. The ordinance should have protected the Philadelphia resident, according to Gullen, because drug offenses have no bearing to working for a car service.
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has received 53 cases since the ordinance was strengthened, the agency reported. Of those, 36 remain open. Fourteen were settled. Only one went to a public hearing that resulted in a US$25,000 (RM99,087) reward in wages and damages for the worker who filed the complaint.
Uber, which has more than 20,000 drivers operating in the Philadelphia area, did not respond to a question about other incidents of possible discrimination over criminal convictions. The company did report, though, that it had beefed up its criminal background and driving record checks. It has started conducting annual checks on its drivers’ driving record and criminal history. A recent drivers audit brought attention to Daniels’ old offenses, the company said in a statement.
In Philadelphia, Uber and Lyft are facing pressure from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates the ride share industry in the city, to give the agency more information about their operations. The PPA had not received complaints about criminal records being wrongly used to deny drivers access to ride share companies’ apps, a spokesman said.
For Daniels, losing his Uber access cost him some extra income. For others, the same experience could be even more serious. The courses Daniels taught in prison were prompted by his concern that without the ability to earn a living and build credit, people released from prison will turn back to crime.
“All these things keep a dude behind the eight ball,” said Daniels. “What’s he going to do? He’s going to fold.”
Daniels said he had no idea how to challenge Uber’s decision.
“There’s no way they should have terminated me for something that was 28 years old and 23 years old,” Daniels said. “That’s impossible.”
As it turns out, Uber agrees with him. Four days after learning Daniels had contacted a reporter and almost a month after he was kicked off the app, Uber notified him that he had been reinstated in Pennsylvania. He will be barred from driving in Delaware. Daniels hasn’t decided whether he wants to return to driving with the company.
“It puts a bad taste in your mouth that you would do that to somebody,” he said. — The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service