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Majority of Violence Task Force members absent from meeting

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 | 9:48 p.m. CST; updated 9:25 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 12, 2014

COLUMBIA — When is a meeting not a meeting? When more than half of the members of the group don't show up.

The Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence was scheduled to meet Wednesday evening, but when only seven of the task force's 15 members attended, no official meeting could occur.

Because the task force was created by city government, it must maintain a quorum — or a majority of members present — in order to hold a meeting, according to its establishing legislation.

Without a quorum, the task force was not able to discuss any of the four items of old business on its agenda and could not make formal recommendations based on its guest speaker's presentation.

Task Force Co-chair and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said that not officially meeting won't slow down the task force or cause it to get behind schedule.

"I don't think it's going to have a very big impact that we didn't have a quorum this evening," Nauser said. "We'll have to be cautious as we move forward and make certain that we do always have a quorum because we don't want this to happen again."

Although no official meeting occurred, the task force members in attendance heard from the group's scheduled speaker, S. David Mitchell. An associate professor of law at MU, Mitchell spoke about ex-offenders and the re-entry process as it pertains to community violence.

Mitchell made three recommendations based on data collected on Boone County ex-offenders re-entering communities.

Ban the box

The easiest change for a local government to make, Mitchell said, would be to stop employers from asking if an applicant has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony on a first application.

Mitchell said allowing businesses to do that creates a stigma around convictions that is just as barring to future success as the conviction itself. He said that question could be asked on a second interview if it is relevant to the employment sought or ideally not at all.

Task force members seemed receptive to the idea, though they can't take action on the issue directly. They could make a recommendation to the Columbia City Council, however.

“I think the 'ban the box' is some pretty low-hanging fruit," Task Force Member Dan Hannekin said. "Whether or not the city embraces it, I don’t know. But I certainly think that’s an obvious one."

Expungement

The next important issue is addressing how convictions are removed from a person's criminal record, a process known as expungement, Mitchell said. Without that process, it is very difficult to overcome a conviction and obtain employment, especially for juvenile offenders, he said.

“It is necessary to increase the number of offenses that are eligible for expungement," Mitchell said. "To carry the stigma of a conviction from a juvenile going forward is to carry a burden that is so difficult to overcome that it may be forcing folks into underground economies.”

The data showed one of the largest groups of ex-offenders re-entering communities is between 25 and 34 years old, which are also an individual's prime earning years. Mitchell said that without expungement, ex-offenders are not able to obtain well-paying jobs and often return to crime to supplement or create their income.

While expungement is a state and federal issue, Mitchell suggested that if enough communities prompted the state to take action, it would be a good start.

Post-release stability

The final area of emphasis for Mitchell was increasing pathways to economic security for ex-offenders who are re-entering communities. Specifically, Mitchell said that communities need to provide more transitional housing and allow ex-offenders to stay in those facilities for months instead of weeks.

He also suggested that communities need to provide physical and mental health care for ex-offenders, as the data indicated those needs were going unserved. Those costs are being passed down to communities in other ways, he said.

When asked about specific programs that would be useful, Mitchell focused on the value that an ideal program would provide to both the ex-offender and the community.

"The key to preventing, on some levels, violence in the community and helping ex-offenders get back is you gotta make sure the other options are options those individuals want," Mitchell said. "There’s gotta be something more, more than just the platitudes that we have been giving, more than just the rhetoric. That is not enough."

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 12.


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