Helping ex-cons find jobs

To be successful, realignment will have to focus on helping them get jobs

Next week, California’s counties will begin implementing some of the most far-reaching changes in their recent history as a result of Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act. (See our story on page 8 for a description of how Butte County is affected.) It’s a sea change in the state’s criminal-justice system that places more emphasis on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration than ever before.

For several decades, that system has been dominated by two forces: lawmakers’ need to look “tough on crime” by passing stiffer sentencing laws, and the growing power of the correctional officers’ union. The result has been more prisoners serving longer sentences and thus more prisons and prison guards—the so-called prison-industrial complex.

Three factors have created a perfect storm to compel change. One is the state’s budget crisis, which has forced the Legislature to reduce spending on corrections dramatically. The second is a federal court ruling mandating that the state reduce its prison population by 34,000 in two years. And the third is Gov. Jerry Brown’s determination to transfer many of the functions of state government, including housing certain offenders, to the counties, aka realignment.

Most counties don’t have room for these offenders in their jails. As a result, they’re being forced to be innovative by setting up programs designed to keep people out of jail—alternative custody using ankle bracelets, pretrial-release programs, and programs to reduce recidivism by providing a wide range of services, from drug and alcohol treatment to GED studies.

This is all well and good, but nothing is better for keeping someone on the straight and narrow than actually having a job. In this economy, however, jobs are hard to find, even for people without a criminal record. And most job applications ask applicants to check a box if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony—resulting in an automatic rejection in most cases.

The county would be wise to work closely with, and perhaps even fund, groups like locally based Starting Over Strong ( in their efforts to “ban the box” on job applications and to help ex-offenders expunge their criminal records. County officials should also work with the California State Association of Counties to lobby for legislation that makes it easier for ex-offenders to find work.

Butte County has been admirably innovative in finding alternatives to incarceration. Now it needs to apply that spirit of innovation to removing the barriers to employment ex-offenders face.