When Oakland resident Hawk Aavan Jonsson applies for a job, it's not the interview he worries about. It's getting past the review of his application. On every job application he fills out, he must check the felony conviction box.
Jonsson, 40, was released from prison 14 years ago after serving six years for two home robberies and drug possession. Although Jonsson has stayed clean and earned multiple firefighting and paramedic certifications, he's never been hired for a permanent, full-time job that pulls in more than $23,000 a year.
Having to check the box “washes you out of the process pretty quickly,” Jonsson said. “But I keep on going on because I figure if I want to work for somebody, I want it to be someone who will give me a second chance.”
Advocates for the formerly incarcerated think people like Jonsson might get that second chance if the felony conviction box is removed from job applications. And once employed, they will be less likely to re-offend.
Now, citing studies showing that ex-offender employment reduces recidivism by as much as 50 percent, Contra Costa County may join San Francisco County, Alameda County and the city of East Palo Alto, which “ban the box” on job applications. Contra Costa County’s recidivism rate mirrors the state’s at 70 percent.
“We’re advocating it,” said Ed Diokno, policy analyst for Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover. “Glover asked us to come up with something modeled off Alameda County’s. We just have to have the right words for the regulation.” The measure could be introduced later this year, he said.
Supporters of such regulations say that the state benefits if more ex-prisoners are employed. “It’s important people understand, especially in terms of safety, how much we’re sacrificing when we don’t give these people a chance,” said Linda Evans, executive director of All of Us or None. “We pay billions more on prisons when we don’t.” For the last six years, the nonprofit group has lobbied nationwide to ban the box from job applications.
A few states have been receptive. This year, New Mexico and Connecticut passed measures banning the check box on public job applications, while Massachusetts’ became the first to pass a statewide ban for both the public and private sectors.
Efforts to ban the box in California have been local, not statewide. In 2005, San Francisco County was one of the first areas in the country to adopt the policy for publicly funded jobs. Alameda County and East Palo Alto followed suit. In 2006, Los Angeles and San Bernardino County considered a similar policy but ultimately decided that the felony conviction box did not deter ex-offenders from applying for jobs.
In 2007, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums promised to increase employment for ex-offenders. But the city still has not decided which job applications do not need a felony conviction box. Alameda County permits felony conviction checkboxes on applications for jobs involving a federal security clearance or activity with certain populations, such as seniors or children.
For Evans, the campaign to ban the box is about civil rights. “One of the main abuses is discrimination, because an employer won’t consider whether a conviction is applicable to the job being applied for,” Evans said. “Some employers have lifetime bans for [former offenders], but that’s illegal. There has to be a job-specific reason to not take that employee.”
There are already some federal prohibitions against job discrimination regarding ex-felons. In fall 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that screening out job applicants with a criminal record that would not affect their job performance is illegal because it has the effect of excluding minorities and males. Those groups have disproportionately higher conviction rates and lower credit scores than the general population.
Employers and background-check companies are also prohibited from examining more than seven years into an applicant's criminal record under the Fair Credit Act, Evans said. “Background check companies are not following the law, and don't always update [records] every 30 days, so their records can be full of errors," Evans said. "But they just get away with it because no one's enforcing [the law].”
Evans thinks background checks should be done only after an offer of employment is made, so that applicants are judged first on their qualifications. Evans said Oakland could improve its efforts, since only its public works department has made the change.
The Oakland Mayor's Office still does not know when the city will fully implement Alameda County’s ban-the-box measure, according to Isaac Taggart, the mayor's re-entry specialist. In the last year, the office has been too busy adjusting to layoffs and hiring freezes to give the plan much attention, he said.
But Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of All of Us or None, said a recession should not stop incorporation of the measure. “Even in the best of times it was hard to get support, when the unemployment rate for people coming out of jail was already at least 80 percent,” Nunn said. “When is it a good time?”
Jonsson has a part-time job cleaning sailboats in Oakland but he aspires to better employment. He's in the process of applying for a state Certificate of Rehabilitation, which indicates that a person has had a clean criminal record for the last 10 years, has resided in one location for at least five and has several character recommendations.
If an Alameda County Superior Court Judge grants him the certificate, it would automatically be forwarded to the governor for consideration of a pardon. Jonsson’s odds of getting one are low, however. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pardoned only six felons.
But not all former felons think banning the box is worthwhile. San Mateo resident Ron Singler, 65, was convicted of second-degree murder decades ago. He’s been living at a Menlo Park homeless veterans center since May 2009, and while he has been hired for temporary gigs, he hasn’t found anything permanent.
“They’re going to see my criminal record sooner or later, so I don’t really think it makes a difference,” Singler said.
Eric Mayo, who offers former inmates job counseling on his Jail to Job blog, believes employers should know who they’re dealing with before the interview. He said there are certain strategies that can help improve the odds of hiring. “You’ve got to add a nice letter and resume even if you don’t have to,” Mayo said. “You have to be ready to work harder than anyone to get that job.”
Jonsson's dream of working as an emergency first-responder depends on getting pardoned. “[The conviction record] has definitely kept me at a glass ceiling,” Jonsson said. “I believe that there is a much bigger purpose for me here in this world, and I definitely want to take full advantage of that.”
Alexa Vaughn is a member of the News21 team at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.