No second chances
When it comes to the job market, it’s an uphill battle for ex-offenders
When she was 19 years old, Felicity made a mistake that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She’d been trying to turn her life around, to sober up after wandering down “the road to being a drug-addicted, screwed-up kid,” and so she left the town where her troubles began to explore the open road with two friends.
The three drove around the country for two months “exploring, getting clean, visiting friends and family, and seeing what the United States looked like.” At the end of those two months, their money ran out.
“One of my friends got the crazy idea to rob a restaurant,” said Felicity (not her real name). While she waited in the car, he walked inside with a gun, she said, which he brandished briefly before changing his mind about committing the robbery and walking back outside.
A little scared about what they’d almost done, they drove to the next state and stayed with some friends for a few days. Their plan for money: get jobs. Days later, police arrived at the house—they’d gotten a noise complaint from a neighbor—and after checking IDs, arrested Felicity and her friend for first-degree armed robbery. Turns out they were wanted for attempting to rob the restaurant, after the license plate of the car they were driving turned up on a surveillance-camera video.
Felicity, who drove the “getaway car,” was offered probation and a chance to go back home to her family if she testified against her friend and said that he had attempted to rob the restaurant and failed.
“The problem was that he hadn’t attempted to rob anyone,” Felicity said. “He had changed his mind and left. … I couldn’t contemplate saying he had tried to violently rob the restaurant when he hadn’t, just to save my own skin.… I would have to wake up every day and know I had put him in prison for the next quarter of a century while I went home.”
Instead, Felicity ended up pleading guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree burglary, a felony that called for a 10-year sentence. Because the former high-school honor student “from a good home and a loving family” had no criminal record to that point—“not even a parking ticket”—the violent element of the charge was removed, and Felicity served 21 months in a women’s prison. She was denied parole three times, deemed a danger to society.
Since this experience, Felicity went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Chico State, where she is currently a graduate student as well as a university employee.
But because of the felony on her record, the bright-eyed, attractive, self-possessed 30-year-old has repeatedly been denied opportunities to better herself and contribute to society to her full potential.
Like thousands of others in California—and many more nationwide—having a felony on her record has been akin to wearing a scarlet letter “F” when it’s come to seeking employment and seizing opportunities. Felicity has had a number of crushing disappointments after getting within figurative millimeters of grabbing the brass ring—all directly related to her felony.
There is some hope, though. Discrimination like what Felicity has felt is the reason why organizations like Starting Over Strong have launched campaigns to “ban the box”—meaning the box on job applications that asks about criminal history—and helped people to get their records expunged.
“I’ve spent every single day for the last decade focusing on living my life with integrity, progressing, and trying to stay motivated to keep going in a society that has forever labeled me a felon, a convict,” Felicity said. “Everybody has made bad decisions. Not all bad decisions are on paper.”
“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
It’s a question most people have had to answer at one time or another when seeking employment.
For those who check the “yes” box, it can mean an automatic rejection from a potential employer, regardless of the type of offense, length of time since the offense occurred and how pertinent it is to the type of employment being sought.
A March 2011 report from the New York-based National Employment Law Project (NELP) identified a significant increase since 9/11 in the use of inexpensive, easy-to-obtain background checks of potential employees by employers. More than 90 percent of American companies use criminal-background checks when deciding whom to hire.
NELP found that, not only do a number of American employers routinely discriminate against job applicants with a felony or a misdemeanor on their record—“No misdemeanors and/or felonies of any type ever in background,” one Craigslist ad for a warehouse/manufacturing job was quoted in the report as saying—some employers will go so far as to deny access to the job-application process by excluding even those with arrests on their records, regardless of whether they were convicted. “No felony arrests or convictions of any kind for life,” advised another Craigslist ad, this one looking to hire an electrical contractor.
According to NELP, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, national origin, and other protected categories. … Title VII has long been recognized as prohibiting not only overt, intentional discrimination, but also disallowing those facially neutral policies and practices that have a disproportionate impact on certain groups. Using arrest and conviction records to screen for employment is an example of the kind of ‘neutral’ selection criteria that invites Title VII scrutiny.”
Latest NELP figures show that approximately 65 million Americans—more than one in four—have an arrest or a conviction for a felony or a misdemeanor that will show up on a criminal-background check. That’s a lot of people potentially excluded from an already challenging job market.
The walls of the Humboldt Avenue home that 25-year-old Jerry Tyler shares with his wife, Kim, and three children are lined with family photographs. It’s one of only a few “real homes” Tyler has had in his life. With the exception of two stints in foster care—from age 7 to 9, when he and his younger brother lived with local attorney Leslie Johnson and her husband, Bob Trausch, and age 14 to 15, when he lived with another family—Tyler grew up mostly in motel rooms with his brother and their single-parent mother, who had (and still has) a longstanding substance-abuse problem.
“My mom’s a meth addict,” said Tyler, a bright, likeable young man with a slightly guarded demeanor. “When I was little, she’d transport [drugs] so she could get dope. … It got so bad that she thought ghosts were tearing up her sandals and stuff.”
Tyler said he started working at age 10: “I just wanted to earn my own money. I did lawnmowing, stripped down air conditioners. I was only making $5 an hour, but … I used to save it. I never bought very much, maybe a snack at school or something. Then my mom would take my money and buy her dope with it.”
For two years, Tyler has been trying to find a full-time job. While he has been able to secure occasional part-time work as a handyman and a tattoo artist (a skill he learned in prison), Tyler said he has found the job-market door almost entirely closed to him because he is an ex-felon.
In 2005, when he was 19, Tyler was convicted of first-degree burglary, for which he served seven months in county jail, it being his first offense. Tyler said that he had not stolen anything at the time of his arrest, but was driving the “getaway” pickup truck into which his younger brother had put goods stolen from a Chico home. Tyler “took a plea,” he said, to reduce the amount of time his brother—who had two previous burglaries on his record—would have to serve.
While on probation, Tyler received his first violation—a dirty test—six months after he was released from jail, for smoking marijuana. “I was just struggling and it kind of eased my mind,” Tyler offered. He served 40 days of a 60-day sentence in county jail, released early because of good behavior. Another violation followed, also for smoking pot.
After his third probation violation—for leaving a Bay Area drug-rehabilitation center to witness the birth of his son, Michael, now 3—Tyler ended up serving 18 months at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, in Riverside County. He was released from parole after another 18 months in September 2010.
Recently, Tyler—who was valedictorian of his graduating class at now-defunct North Valley Community School and earned an A.S. degree in agricultural business at Butte College while he was still in high school—applied for a housekeeping position at the local Holiday Inn, but “I got to the interview, and as soon as they got to the felony part, that was it. They said they can’t hire me.” Ditto for his experience with Adecco Employment Services, a local temp agency: “They said they can take certain felonies, but they can’t take mine because it’s burglary.”
“There is no such thing here as a policy against hiring felons,” said Holiday Inn manager Mike Miller by phone recently. “If it’s a bonding issue—a position of trust such as management, supervisory or financial—I’m sure you understand. But it’s always a case-by-case basis. It has to be. If I have a parole officer or someone that’s working with an ex-felon come to me and recommend them, I would override what I might otherwise do and hire them—I’ve done that in the past.”
“It depends on the date of conviction,” offered Adecco branch manager Shawn Kelley. “There are some circumstances when we do work with felons.” In the case of burglary, she said, “we can work with it, if it is more than seven years since the date of conviction. … The No. 1 problem we see is the repeat offender; that is a problem for most [potential employers].”
“Jerry always wanted to work, even as a little kid,” writes Johnson, his former foster mother, in a recent e-mail. Johnson’s husband employs Tyler to do part-time odd jobs. “He liked nothing better than being able to help with any kind of job or project that any adult was doing, even when it was obviously too hard for him. He still likes to work, and is always willing to pitch in and help. That is why it is so unfortunate that his ‘record’ makes it hard for him to get a job.
“One of the greatest injustices of our criminal-justice system is the difficulty former inmates have in obtaining jobs after release,” she continued. “It is very hard, almost impossible, for a former prisoner to get a fresh start, simply because prospective employers are permitted to discriminate against them and very often do refuse to hire them because of their history.”
Starting Over Strong (SOS) is a faith-based nonprofit organization based in Butte and Glenn counties that works to help those who have served time in jail or prison transition back into society, particularly when it comes to finding employment. In addition to working with individuals with felonies and/or misdemeanors on their record, SOS also helps people who are having trouble finding employment because of an arrest that did not result in a conviction.
One of the ways SOS helps ex-offenders is by assisting them in getting their criminal records expunged. SOS offers regular, no-cost “expungement workshops” in both Butte and Glenn counties.
“Getting your record expunged is not synonymous with concealment,” offered Sharon Darsey, director and founder of SOS. Darsey, a radiant, engaging 50-year-old, was charged in 1996 with a nonviolent felony that was reduced to a misdemeanor for which she served three years’ probation. She has since had the offense expunged.
“Your record still shows up, but instead of a felony, it says ‘dismissed,’” she explained. Then legally, when asked if they’ve been convicted of a crime, they can say “no.” If a person gets his or her record expunged, in most cases, “they can sue if they are discriminated against in the job market.”
Darsey, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work and will receive her master’s degree on May 20, said it was an experience at Chico State that prompted her to start SOS in 2008. She said she was told by advisers at the time that “if you have a misdemeanor or a felony, you will not have access to the job market the same way as others.”
Denying ex-offenders access to the job market, she said, is “an extended form of imprisonment. But it’s starting to change.
“We call ourselves ‘formerly incarcerated individuals,’ not ‘ex-offenders,’” she added, “because we don’t want to associate ourselves with the word ‘offend.’ It just perpetuates the stigmatization of where people want to keep us—in that box.”
More than 700,000 inmates are released from prison in the United States each year, reports MSNBC.com. Of those people, more than two-thirds will likely re-offend within the next three years. With so many people flooding into the “outside” from behind bars, it makes sense to find ways to help integrate them back into society so that they can become successful, participating members.
A movement to “ban the box”—get rid of the section on job applications that asks for criminal history—is gaining momentum across the United States. Oakland-based All of Us or None (www.allofusornone.org) is just one of a number of groups, including Ban the Box and Clean Slate, working toward this goal. At the top of All of Us or None’s to-do list is “eliminat[ing] the question about prior convictions on public employment applications.”
The states of Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota, Connecticut and New Mexico now “prohibit public employers from asking about the criminal history of jobseekers on initial applications. Massachusetts and Hawaii have gone a step further and slapped the ban on private employers as well,” according to civil-rights advocacy website The Defenders Online (www.thedefendersonline.com). Employers in those states can still ask job applicants about prior arrests and convictions during an interview.
Individual cities also are jumping on the ban-the-box bandwagon. Philadelphia, according to recent news reports, is one of the latest—joining Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco—to make the move. In mid-April, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed a bill passed by the Philadelphia City Council requiring that the section on job applications asking for a person’s criminal history be removed.
“How would you actually know that this could potentially be one of your best employees if you never talked to them and let a piece of paper run them out the door?” he said to Philadelphia’s CBS News.
In 2005, after completing school to become an insurance agent, Felicity was denied licensing by the state of California because of her felony. A year later, she was turned away from a job with the Army Corps of Engineers, even after it was offered to her, also because of the felony.
In 2009, after being “one of 24 people in the world” accepted to a graduate anthropology program at the University of Manchester in England, Felicity’s student visa was denied by the U.K. Border Agency. After the London train-bombings in July 2005, she said, “they went to biometric passports, and the first persons they were testing it out on were international students. Anybody that had a chargeable offense was potentially falling under their new terrorism guidelines.”
Recently, Felicity was denied a promotion to a full-time, student-services-related job in the office she works in at Chico State after a Live Scan electronic fingerprint scan (required for full-time-with-benefits employees at the university) turned up her felony conviction from 11 years ago. Though she openly discussed, during the interview process, both the felony and what she had learned from her experiences, and was the top choice among several hundred applicants that applied for the job, she ultimately was denied the position.
Dan Goodsell, outreach coordinator for Chico State’s University Public Events and Chico Performances, was Felicity’s boss for two years, from 2007 to 2009, when she was his student assistant. In that capacity, Felicity worked with the artists—ranging from anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey, comedian Bill Cosby and NPR star Ira Glass to big performance groups—providing backstage hospitality and transportation as needed.
Felicity was also responsible for outreach to the community when performers visited local schools and interacted with students on campus. Additionally, she was in charge of “purchasing items for artists and being responsible in balancing petty cash accounts, which she always did.”
Felicity was working for Goodsell when she was denied her visa to go to England; he had even helped her line up funds for the trip.
“I shared in her enthusiasm when she was accepted into a prestigious ‘visual anthropology’ program at the University of Manchester,” Goodsell said. “Only a handful of people were chosen. Within two weeks of the date she was supposed to leave, her visa was denied. I think it was about that time she actually told me what had happened, the whole thing.”
Goodsell said that when Felicity first started working for him, “she lacked some self-confidence, and I didn’t know why. … But over the two years she worked for me, she gained a lot of self-confidence because of being exposed to very talented people who weren’t concerned about her background. I mean, Richard Leakey invited her to dinner—she was an anthropology major. He had just met her for part of the day he was here when she escorted him around campus. He was so impressed, he requested she stay in touch with him so he could follow her career.”
Goodsell said he found Felicity so reliable that he and his wife hired her to housesit for them. “I didn’t find out until later about her criminal background.”
Goodsell was interviewed when Felicity was being considered for the full-time student-services position and was disappointed she was passed over.
“I just think it’s sad that they didn’t recognize the potential,” Goodsell said. “Well, not even the potential—the abilities. They look for diversity in the job market, especially in the university, but when it comes to that kind of diversity, they aren’t willing to take a chance. She’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met in terms of strength of character, honesty and integrity.”
Felicity will be eligible to apply for expungement of her felony in four months’ time. “I think everybody deserves a second chance, but unfortunately it’s hard to find a second chance,” Felicity said. “I believe a decision made out of desperation or when you were young shouldn’t dictate the rest of your life.”