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Al Jazeera America

Job applications put ex-offenders in tight box

States and cities are enacting laws to ban prior-conviction questions in initial employment screening

COMPTON, Calif. — When Jonathan Jones reveals he was convicted of first-degree murder, went to prison as a juvenile and was paroled 28 years and two months later, anyone might feel a tinge of discomfort.

So imagine when he, out of prison at 45, starts filling out job applications and inevitably the dreaded box appears: Check here if you have ever been convicted of a crime.

Once the box is checked, the callbacks are few.

“It’s a challenge because when you have been convicted of a felony, a lot of them don’t give you a chance,” said Jones, who’s getting housecleaning and warehouse jobs through a temp agency while living in transitional housing in South Central Los Angeles. “When they see you’ve checked that box, a lot of them will throw it in the trash.”

States and cities across the country are enacting laws to ban the prior-conviction box on job applications — a movement that has picked up momentum this decade.

Twelve states (including California, Colorado, Connecticut and Illinois) have adopted ban-the-box policies. Most limit the ban to public jobs, but four states (Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island) have banished the conviction history question from private employers’ job applications, according to the National Employment Law Project. Illinois is expected to follow suit.

More than 60 cities and counties have enacted some sort of ban-the-box measure. Big cities — such as Philadelphia; Baltimore; Newark, New Jersey; and Buffalo and Rochester, New York — have extended it to private employers, and some, such as San Francisco, have gone even further by banning the box on housing applications.

In Los Angeles, where 1 in 4 has an arrest or conviction record, City Councilman Curren Price this month introduced a measure to prohibit government contractors and private employers from asking about criminal records. If it passes, Los Angeles will be the largest city to adopt the practice, said Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, senior staff attorney in the Oakland office of the National Employment Law Project.

“The ideal would be housing and jobs,” said Zach Hoover, executive director of LA Voice, a multiracial, faith-based organization that is partnering with Price. The measure has the backing of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“Sometimes people think of someone who’s been in prison and they think only of what they did instead of what they’re doing today,” Hoover said. “They’ve done their time. They served their sentence, and they’re looking for a job.”

Many job seekers have convictions for minor nonviolent crimes, from shoplifting to marijuana possession, Rodriguez said.

“It’s like double jeopardy,” Hoover said. “You’ve done your time, and now you get a life sentence of joblessness.”

Ban the box

It may come as a surprise that some businesses are supporting the measure (or at least not fighting it), but employers understand that screening candidates for convictions cuts into the pool of qualified workers.

Target, Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond have adopted or promised to adopt fair-chance policies.

The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on Price’s proposed measure, but the group endorses helping people who were incarcerated get back into the workforce.

“The larger idea of improving re-entry, we’re all for,” said David Rattray, senior vice president of education workforce development at the chamber. “We try to educate our own members.”

Banning the box doesn’t mean employers can’t do background checks. It just means they can’t do it until after a person has applied. If the applicant’s credentials are good enough to warrant further consideration and even an interview, employers may check convictions. Then they can decide.

Of course, some jobs would be off-limits, depending on the crime. Someone who was convicted of fraud is not likely to get a job as a bank teller, and sex offenders could not work in schools, for example.

“The employer community will be open if they think there will be a rational approach,” Rattray said. “The standard practice across the country just screens so many people out before they make their case. This would take it out of the front end of the application process.”

The chamber is investing more in preventive measures to help people avoid prison in the first place.

“We have been challenged in California with a school-to-prison pipeline,” Rattray said. “There is a higher rate of kids who end up in prison than end up in college. Criminal justice reform needs to be made both on the front end — decriminalizing low-level offenses — and on the back end to help people prior to them being incarcerated.”

There is growing evidence that the public is open to these changes, he said. In 2012 voters approved Proposition 36, which revised the three-strikes law to impose a life sentence only if a new felony conviction is serious or violent.

Few of the inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes have been released yet, but when they are, 40 percent will return to Los Angeles County and a third of them to the city.

“What are these people going to do?” asked Joseph Paul Jr., program manager at the Jericho Vocational Services Center, run by Shields for Families, which focuses on helping released prisoners reintegrate into society.

Current laws prohibit ex-felons from living in public housing, which often prevents them from rejoining their families, he said. Pilot programs in Los Angeles County are starting to allow a limited number to apply.

It’s like double jeopardy. You’ve done your time, and now you get a life sentence of joblessness.

Zach Hoover

executive director, LA Voice

Not a free ticket

On a recent Thursday in Compton, some ex-cons took part in a job interview exercise at Shields for Families. Others sat at computers searching for jobs and filling out online applications.

Shields, a faith-based nonprofit, works with people like Jonathan Jones, teaching job skills and, more important, job-seeking skills. It often ends up putting ex-cons to work at its center.

Saun Hough, a soft-spoken ex-Marine, went to prison at 20 for second-degree murder. He got out at 38. While serving time, he earned a degree in biblical studies and became a mentor in substance-abuse programs.

“Coming home was a daunting task,” he said.

After living in transitional housing, he got help from Shields. He’s now a job developer at the center and a leader with LA Voice.

“I love now being able to sit down with employers and show them [serving time] doesn’t take away from being qualified,” said Hough. “It breaks the stereotypes.”

Having to disclose a criminal record has become a big impediment to finding employment and housing, Hoover said.

“It’s not just not being able to get work but also how demoralizing it is to apply for your 10th job and be rejected,” he said. “Sometimes managers will say to them, ‘You’re really qualified, but your conviction history …’”

Advocates say banning the box is an important but small step.

“Please don’t think it’s a free ticket,” Hough said. “You still have to be qualified. I don’t want people to think that everybody’s going to get a job.”

Curtis McCray, a 47-year-old father of four, served 19 years and three months in a federal penitentiary after he was involved in a shootout with police. He learned welding skills and is now the head of maintenance at Shields.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s about what you know, but it’s also about who you know.”

His cellphone rang. It was someone who did time with him at the Terminal Island correctional facility who could help someone who was just released find work.

Mirella Jimenez, 35, gave birth to her fifth child in prison while serving a three-year sentence for employee theft. She had been in and out of the county jail before, for drug possession and driving without a license. She struggled with an addiction to methamphetamines.

Prison time was a reality check.

“It allowed me to do a lot of thinking,” she said. She was paroled, entered a rehabilitation center and fought for custody. She found housing through her mother-in-law’s landlord but had to pay three times the normal deposit. She recently applied for low-income housing and was denied because of her record.

Jimenez now works at the front reception desk at Shields through a transitional jobs program, attends Long Beach City College and is a monitor for a substance-abuse foundation on weekends.

“I’ve been very unsuccessful in my job search because of my criminal background,” she said. “I’m still being punished for something I paid for.”

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