Juice: Under the Influence

By Published On: November 30, 2012

Several years ago I handled indigent criminal appeals. One of my most memorable cases involved defending a black teenager who got busted for drugs. This case was unusual because the crime only involved an illegal substance, not the types of crimes I usually handled--burglary, robbery, or worse. Another unique aspect of this matter was that my 16-year-old client’s mother, who had been recently widowed, attended every court hearing--of which there were many. Luckily for the three of us, there was a new judge on the case. Also, the judge had just visited some of the state’s grim juvenile detention centers. He asked my strapping young client about his experience in teenage jail. “It’s no big deal,” the young man muttered. His mother blurted out, “Now you tell the judge what you told me!” The teenager reluctantly told the judge how rough it was inside the detention center. After listening to the young man, the judge agreed to give him another chance. My client was put on probation instead of having to finish his sentence out in the detention center. I thought of that young man while reading a plea from the Greenlining Institute urging state regulators last week to prohibit punitive background checks for contractors handling energy efficiency jobs for investor-owned utilities. I wondered if my former client’s bust has kept him from getting a decent job, and free from the cycle of poverty and violence. I don’t know the answer but agree with Greenlining that he and others like him would be shut out of energy efficiency work if utilities require that job applicants be immediately disqualified for a subset of non-violent convictions not related to the work at hand. That matter is urgent. That’s because beginning next year utilities are to begin upfront background checks for energy efficiency contractors and workers. The criteria for passing the checks were developed behind closed doors and cover a large number of crimes, some victimless. They only thing that could alter the checks is if the California Public Utilities Commission takes up the matter before its final meeting of this year. Past drug and driving under the influence convictions instantly shut out many otherwise worthy job candidates. That conflicts with a key goal of the CPUC’s “big bold” energy efficiency programs financed with billions of ratepayer dollars: workforce training and expansion, particularly in neglected and underserved areas. According to the National Law Employment Center, about one in four adults in the U.S. have rap sheets--or about 65 million people. No one benefits from a large section of our population being jobless. Shutting these men and women out of the workforce keeps them on the margins of society, harming them and our communities. The proposed mandate for upfront criminal background checks for energy efficiency work also is racist. That’s because Blacks and Latinos are more frequently targeted by the police for drug and DUI arrests. Both men and some women in these groups are far more likely to be arrested than their counterparts in the white population. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “found that Latinos and African Americans were more likely than Whites to be arrested, convicted, or sentenced for drug offenses even though their rate of drug use is similar to the rate of drug use for Whites,” notes Greenlining in its Nov. 20 filing (emphasis included). I don’t doubt the good intentions of utilities, known for their diverse workforces, in pursuing the background checks. They want contractors they hire to have reliable workers and to avoid liability. But like Greenlining, I take issue with the lack of transparency on their employment qualification proposals for energy efficiency contractors--and the apparent lack of input from organizations with employment expertise. Prior drug and DUI convictions shouldn’t keep men and women from getting paid for legitimate work, be it weatherizing leaky homes, or performing other efficiency retrofit work. That doesn’t mean I take driving under the influence lightly. I don’t and probably more so than many because my father instituted California’s first anti-drunk driving law when he was head of the Department of Motor Vehicles in the early 1960s. (It also led to a big fight with his boss, then-Gov. Pat Brown, because several bigwigs had gotten pulled over. Surely those stops didn’t interfere with their job prospects.) State regulators should not be overly influenced by Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric liability concerns. The CPUC, like my client’s judge, should give contractor workers a chance to speak out, avoiding discriminatory exclusions of struggling populations from getting jobs within their reach. Thoughtful shaping of hiring criteria to keep the door open for needy job applicants, while protecting utilities and their ratepayers, surely will take fewer resources than those used to measure energy savings from compact fluorescent lights or determine when utility shareholders--many of whom have driven under the influence or used drugs--should get bonuses. State regulators need to act to keep the energy efficiency training and job prospects from going bust.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now