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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 8:04 PM

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Danny Westneat

Westneat: Ex-cons need to earn equality

You know how you can't bar housing or jobs to people on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability and so on? Those are called "protected classes," because under the law these attributes get a unique shield from discrimination. The city wants to add ex-cons to the list.

Seattle Times staff columnist

It's a cliché to say someone has seen it all. Then you meet Jimmy Tharpe.

"The sex offenders and the murderers, they're actually my easy ones," says the 62-year-old businessman matter-of-factly.

Tharpe is a landlord to criminals. He owns three houses in South Seattle that he rents, room by room, to a total of 18 ex-cons. They are rapists, drug dealers, petty thieves, con men. They're free, but not like you and me — they're on a treacherous journey back into society that Tharpe calls "re-entry."

"It's a tricky business," he says, laughing at his own understatement.

Example: Once, Tharp had a tenant who became a Nazi in prison. The guy dressed in uniform, saluted, the works. The trouble, beyond friction with other tenants, was that he had moved into Tharpe's rental house located in Seward Park.

"So I'm renting to an all-out Nazi, and my house happens to be in a Jewish neighborhood!" Tharpe recalls.

"I've got dozens of stories like that. I love it, but I gotta say — renting to ex-offenders is definitely not for everybody."

Only it may soon be. If Seattle city government gets its way.

You know how you can't bar housing or jobs to people on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability and so on? Those are called "protected classes" because under the law these attributes get a unique shield from discrimination.

The city wants to add ex-cons to the list.

Last week, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights proposed adding people with criminal records to Seattle anti-discrimination law. That includes recent convictions. A landlord could be fined, for example, for rejecting a tenant just out of prison for theft or drug dealing.

There are exceptions for arson, murder and other convictions if it can be shown they may threaten the safety of workers or neighbors.


The Office for Civil Rights says it is doing this because, "When people have done their time and leave prison, it is often difficult to find housing and employment."

That's no doubt true. But crime is a choice. And Seattle may be about to put it on the same status as those who are black or female or gay.

Doing so would be "crazy, bizarre, ridiculous," says the landlord to the ex-cons, who thought he had seen everything.

It also won't work, contends Tharp, 62, who has been housing ex-cons since 1997. The state, with some private landlords, has extensive re-entry programs for released prisoners. Many of these people are incorrigible, Tharp says. Seventy percent fail and go back to prison within three years.

"Now we're going to dump all the ex-offenders on private landlords and employers, who have no experience dealing with them?" he said.

Setting aside whether this will work, what I think is dicey is that, until now, anti-discrimination law was confined to things that go to the core of your being: race, color, sexual identity and so on. A few things on Seattle's list do involve choices, such as marital status and "political ideology." Plus there is one profession on Seattle's list — service in the military.

Crime is in no way like these others. It's not only a choice but a horrendous one that victimized society. For this reason, many ex-cons, even upon release, don't have the full rights of citizens. Many can't vote or own guns. Some are not entirely free, as they remain in some way monitored by the state.

Yet Seattle wants to elevate them all into a protected class anyway.

The landlord to the criminals says what might work is for the city to go the other way. Encourage landlords to take a chance on just-released ex-cons by making it easier to evict them if something goes wrong.

"You can't just wave a wand to get equality for ex-offenders," Tharp says. "They need to earn it."

At a forum last fall sponsored by homeless groups and the city, some ex-felons spoke movingly about how the end of their sentence can be when the hard time really begins.

"It feels like I'll never stop being punished for what I did," one said, recounting her difficulties being a mother to her daughter because she couldn't find work or a place to live.

I looked up this woman's record. Robbery, theft, dealing meth, restraining order for domestic violence — a 20-year-long rap sheet. She pleaded guilty to multiple counts of identity theft and forgery less than two years ago, in August 2009.

Maybe she is on a new path and just needs a break. But should a landlord be guilty of a civil-rights violation for not renting to her? Or an employer for not hiring her?

I wonder what's next. I bet people with bad credit would like to be a protected class, too.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086



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