Second chances? Missoula County mulls felony restrictions in janitorial contracts

Missoula County commissioners Juanita Vero, left, Dave Strohmaier, center, and Josh Slotnick, will consider whether to require background checks in future cleaning contracts, and how stringent those contracts should be. (Missoula Current file photo)

Felons convicted of forgery and theft could be given a chance to work in county facilities under a new janitorial contract being considered by Missoula County, so long as their conviction was three or more years in the past.

The three-year proposal could be waived for other felons convicted of other crimes.

As the county looks to renew its contract for janitorial services – and a number of other contracts – questions over security have come into play, and whether someone convicted of a felony can be trusted to work in a county facility, oftentimes unsupervised.

It has also raised questions as to when someone deserves a second chance, and when a felon has paid his or her dues to society.

“Due to our security audit last year, it was recommended that we have background checks for janitorial personnel,” said county auditor David Wall. “It’s a reasonable request and it’s something we need to do.”

Under one proposal, the county may require future contracts to restrict anyone convicted of a felony in the last five years from performing cleaning services in county buildings.

The five-year proposal has the support of Jason Emery, the county’s chief information officer, who said janitors have high physical access to county buildings, some of which include access to county-wide servers and sensitive files.

In some cases, he added, janitors have wider physical access than many county employees.

“It puts us at unnecessarily risk, both from a physical and IT standpoint,” said Emery. “We’re the repository for a lot of sensitive data for our citizens and employees. Some is in physical form and some in electronic form.”

Missoula County in recent years has taken steps to address a number of social issues, which include a jail diversion plan launched nearly four years ago. It’s most recent budget proposal also was divided into what commissioners described as “core values.”

The proposed five-year ban on all convicted felons regardless of their crime doesn’t adhered to those core values, some believe.

“The ability to get a job is an important part of meeting parole,” said Wall. “Even though they could get jobs somewhere else, because we’re local government and we talk a lot about deciding things based upon our values, and we have this wonderful jail diversion plan, I want to make sure we’re not making decisions that are counter to those things.”

Contract work with city and county government often pays better than some jobs due to laws on prevailing wages. Shaun Monger, owner of Garden City Janitorial, said government cleaning contracts provide some of his employees a chance to step up and make a decent living. (Bigstock image)

Shaun Monger, owner of Garden City Janitorial, already conducts background checks on his cleaning staff. His company is called upon to clean any number of facilities, from banks to car dealerships.

While his staff is at times assigned to certain duties and locations based upon their criminal past, giving them an opportunity to work is something that should be considered in any county contract, he said.

“This isn’t a new topic to us. We clean banks. We clean a lot of locations,” said Monger. “But I do feel it’s our responsibility in this industry to get these people back to work. It’s a job they can jump right into and be part of the community.”

Contract work with city and county government often pays better than some jobs due to laws on prevailing wages. Monger said government cleaning duties provide some of his employees a chance to step up and make a decent living.

That in turn enables them to find stable housing and put their criminal past behind them. Putting a blanket restriction on all felons, regardless of crime – and for as long as three to five years – would reduce their opportunities for work, Monger said.

It would also make it harder for companies like his to find employees.

“Our current labor market is pretty slim and our options to hire are very limited,” said Monger. “We’ve had postings on Craig’s List and multiple job sites, and you get two to three applicants. We’re working with limited numbers, and this would make it more difficult.”

County legal staff said the five-year restriction is somewhat arbitrary and does little to determine if someone is reformed. They also said that in many instances, first-time felons receive a deferred sentence. If they complete their probation, they can have their record sealed so it no longer appears in a public search.

It generally takes five or six years for most to move past their felony sentence.

But Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said five years is a long time to wait, especially for those looking to reboot their life after making a mistake. During a recent housing forum, he heard from past felons who have stable jobs but can’t find a place to live simply because of their record.

“We’re looking at people who have committed the crime, done their time, paid their restitution, and now are attempting to rebuilt their lives,” he said. “Working as a janitor, with a little bit of training, is something most people can do. To say to someone, ‘I know you can’t find a place to live, and we’re going to make sure this relatively easy access job is off limits to you as well.’ It doesn’t seem right.”

But Slotnick said he also understands the need for security, as do other commissioners. They agree in part that five years may be too long to restrict someone from work. Three years may be equally burdensome depending on the type of crime, they said.

The county may look at a three-year restriction for felons convicted of forgery and theft, but place no timeline on felons convicted of other crimes. White collar criminals may be off limits entirely. But deciphering each and every potential category of crime would be too onerous, they said.

“We absolutely want to maintain the security of our information and facilities, but the question to me comes down to, at what point in time is a convicted felon truly proved up with society and paid the consequences of their action,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“We need to redouble our efforts internally to assure security,” he added. “There’s nothing that would preclude someone with no criminal record, with a criminal intent, from availing themselves to an easy opportunity.”