Assembly passes bill to open casino jobs to some ex-offenders

In a move to open thousands of middle-class jobs to former offenders, the General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to legislation that would allow Maryland casinos to hire some people currently banned because of criminal records.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve the House-passed legislation. The measure goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has not said whether he will sign it.

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the legislation would provide job opportunities for people who committed minor infractions in the past.

"This is an opportunity to help people. This is a jobs bill," she said.

The measure — a top priority for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — would permit but not require casino operators to hire ex-offenders. It would apply to all five currently licensed Maryland casinos, three of which are open, as well as to one planned for Prince George's County.

Under current law, an individual who has been convicted of "crimes of moral turpitude or gambling" is forbidden ever to work at a facility with slot machines. The ban applies to all positions, from dealers to parking attendants. The legislation would limit the ban to seven years after a conviction or the end of parole or probation.

Crimes of moral turpitude, while not defined in Maryland law, have been ruled by the attorney general's office to mean offenses that raise questions about a person's trustworthiness. The definition has been found to cover a wide range of offenses including theft, fraud, false statements and drug possession — but not violent crime.

According to the mayor's office, nearly 1.5 million Marylanders have an arrest or criminal conviction on their records — limiting their job opportunities.

Mary Pat Fannon, Baltimore's lobbyist in Annapolis, said about 9,000 former offenders return to the city each year. She said the city has an interest in seeing that these residents can find work.

"We're trying to create opportunities and take away roadblocks to meaningful employment," she said.

Stephen L. Martino, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, said his agency supports the change. According to the agency, Delaware and Pennsylvania allow people with criminal records to be employed by casinos after 10 and 15 years, respectively. West Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio have lifetime bans.

Martino said his agency originally supported a 10-year waiting period, while the city wanted five, but he said seven years was a good compromise. He said that unlike in other states, Maryland's casino control authority regulates all hiring by casinos, not just those in high-level positions.

According to Martino, the state's rigid lifetime ban has had "unintended consequences," forcing the agency to deny licenses to people for petty offenses committed decades ago. He gave the example of one applicant in his 60s who was seeking a license to work for a slot machine supplier. Martino said the agency was forced to deny permission because the man had stolen four hubcaps when he was 18.

Martino said that under the legislation his agency will still have the authority to deny licenses to people who have committed serious crimes such as murder and sex offenses.

"It in no way limits our general ability to look at the character and fitness of anyone," he said.

The measure could have its most significant near-term effect at the new Horseshoe Casino in downtown Baltimore, which will hire a work force of 1,700 for its scheduled opening next year.

Chad R. Barnhill, general manager of Horseshoe's licensee, CBAC Gaming, testified in favor of the bill at a Senate hearing. He said the company, an affiliate of Caesars Entertainment, supports the city's effort to "properly safeguard the eligibility requirements of video lottery facility employees while also appropriately creating career opportunities."

The legislation is an emergency bill, which would become effective as soon as the governor signs it. According to Jones-Rodwell, the bill was made emergency legislation at the request of the State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission so that the operator of the soon-to-open casino at Rocky Gap in Allegany County can hire without automatically excluding applicants with a record.

James Karmel, a professor at Harford Community College who closely follows the casino industry, said the legislation makes sense.

"It's very hard for someone who's criminally minded to get very far at all with all the security and surveillance in place in any given casino," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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