There is a significant piece of legislation working its way through the California Assembly. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering releasing as many as 20,000 low-level offenders back into communities throughout the state of California as a budget cost-cutting measure. Every year, in the state of California, the nation’s largest jailer with a 170,000 prison population, sends five to seven percent of that population “home,” partly because they have paid their debt to society, partly to make way for new or repeat offenders. That means anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 ex-offenders return to their communities each year. Where do they go? But an even more critical question is, where do they work?
Ex-offenders are discriminated against more than any person of race, gender, creed, religion or sexual orientation in our society. And there is very little help out there for those who have to disclose that they’ve been imprisoned. Many go into business for themselves because no one will hire them. The “stigma” of being an ex-offender is often greater than the offense itself -- particularly, for low-level, non-violent offenders.
There is no real relief. If you disclose it, you don’t get hired. If you don’t disclose it, and they find out about it—you get “unhired” (fired), and thus are back at square one. So California Assemblyman Steve Bradford and Speaker Emeritus, Karen Bass, have co-sponsored AB 2727, the Re-Entry Employment Opportunity Act to help create employment pathways for ex-offenders. The bill prevents an employer from dismissing an applicant for an undisclosed conviction that is unrelated to the job being sought or a conviction that does not put the employer’s business and clients at unreasonable risk of harm.
Nearly 70% of California’s prison population is incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Almost 50% are low level offenders. And the most alarming fact is that 50% of the state’s population will be coming home in the next five years. And we, as a society, have nothing on the outside to insure they can make an honest living. It is the luck of the draw for the ex-offender. Get a job or go back.
Unemployment is the number one reason for crime, assaults on persons, and violations of probation (return to prison) in the state of California. I don’t have to tell you how many are men of color, but know it’s an overwhelming number of them. Recidivist behavior, and return to imprisonment, is a function of social construction where 70% of offenders go back in. California has the highest recidivist rate in the nation—largely because they couldn’t find work and had to “do what they had to do” to survive. But California needs to reduce its prison population, because it pays 28% more for corrections than the national average.
If California is serious about reducing its prison costs, ex-offenders will have to be re-trained and employers will have to be more tolerant of people trying to get their lives back on track. Is that even possible? One thing about American culture, as it relates to any offender, is that despite our professing to being a forgiving society, or want to redeem the best in those who have made mistakes, the truth of the matter is that it always lets the ex-offender know that they are just that, “ex-offenders.”
“Outting” ex-offenders is one true way of eliminating them from competing for good jobs and good life chances. One mistake does not a life make, but for the ex-offender, there is always doubt about character, ethics, and sincerity that others don’t face. The first thing an ex-offender has to develop is thick skin because he (or she) will hear ex-felon, ex-convict, ex-criminal, ex-miscreant THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.
I’m telling what I know…but it doesn’t mean ex-offenders can’t succeed beyond measure. That I also know. They only have to be given the opportunity. Most of the time, the opportunity isn't there because the door is closed before an ex-offender has a chance to prove himself. It’s extremely unfair, but it's a reality that many states (Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Jersey) and many cities or counties (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Alameda County) have realized are barriers to employment and thus have removed disclosures from their employment applications.
Former Los Angeles County Supervisor, Yvonne Burke, led a campaign to “remove the conviction box” from some L.A. County positions a few years back. AB 2727 is looking to do that statewide.
Ex-offenders can count on always being reminded of “what they did” and where they went, no matter how long ago it was, no matter how small the offense was. No differentiation is made over time. However, when seeking employment, no one wants to hire someone they perceive to have less than stellar character—even though many people don’t. They just don’t have a conviction. For the job-seeker, either you have a conviction or never had a conviction. Even if you succeed at overcoming your conviction, the success of doing so is mitigated by those who feel no one deserves a second chance because they haven’t gotten a first one.
When an ex-offender competes with others for work, whether it is a job, a contract, an opportunity to change their reality—if those others know an ex-offender is in the hunt, they will tell the employer or contractor about the conviction, if they think it will deny the ex-offender the opportunity. The best chance the ex-offender has for equal employment is not to have to disclose a conviction that is not serious and is not relevant to the job they are seeking.
This doesn’t apply to serious or violent offenders, or those applying for a job in the industry that the offender was sent away for. Doesn’t mean they won’t find out about it, they just can’t fire someone for it if they’re proved themselves “worthy.” This is a big start to eliminating the stigma of criminal convictions. It will never “go away” completely. The rest is up to the ex-offender-who will be reminded, periodically, what they did. But that’s okay if they can say they’re “ex-unemployable.”
At a time of economic challenge and state budget cuts, this legislation will come not a minute too soon. We need to urge the state legislature to pass it and urge the Governor to sign it.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com