October 5th, 2016
Over the past six years, Mike Trempus of Raleigh, North Carolina, has applied for over 1,000 jobs. His resume and professional references are enough to impress any employer, but his desirability as an employee often boils down to one question: Are you are felon?
Mike is a “felon.” Several years ago, when he was 19, he was convicted of a “class i” drug-related felony (the lowest possible felony). He is currently completing his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and has not used drugs since he was a teenager. But still, the question haunts him.
Every time Mike has been forced to “check the box” about criminal history on job applications, he has not been called for an interview. But more recently, in applications when his felony background has been revealed after the interview, he has been offered three different jobs, which he has taken.
The main problem faced by Mike and over a million other North Carolinians with an arrest or conviction history is not that they are unqualified to work, unwilling to work, or dangerous. It’s that they are forced to reveal their status as felon before they can showcase their strengths.
“When I disclose my criminal history on an application, my record becomes their first impression,” Mike says. “Waiting until after the interview process gives the manager the ability to weigh my value as an employee against the felony.”
Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn nationally as more people recognize that by continuing to punish people who have already served their debt to society, we create a second class of citizens who can’t support themselves.
One way in which communities are beginning to help formerly incarcerated people transition back into productive citizenship is to adopt Fair Chance Hiring policies, also known as Ban the Box. Fair Chance Hiring policies delay questions on criminal history until after the interview or a conditional offer of employment has been made, affording the applicant a greater chance for face-to-face contact with the employer and the opportunity to demonstrate qualifications and rehabilitation. The 24 states and over 100 municipalities around the country that have implemented Fair Chance Hiring have reported numerous benefits, including reduced recidivism and increased tax revenue. (Though in some cases, well-known companies have failed to obey the laws.)
Stable employment is the number one deterrent to recidivism. One study by Mark Berg and Beth Heubner showed that two years after release from jail or prison, employed people were more than twice as likely to have not committed any additional crimes as their unemployed counterparts. Another study, conducted over three years by the Safer Foundation, found that formerly incarcerated people who worked throughout the year had a 16 percent recidivism rate, compared to a 52.3 percent recidivism rate for those who could not secure steady employment.
North Carolina, where I live, has not yet adopted Fair Chance Hiring practices statewide. But a growing movement of local governments, nonprofits and directly impacted people is hoping to change that.
Umar Muhammad, an organizer at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) in Durham, North Carolina, is part an effort to adopt Fair Chance Hiring at the local and state levels. “When I came home from prison, I couldn’t find employment or go to school,” he says. “If [SCSJ hadn’t given me a chance], I’m afraid of what my life would have looked like.”
Along with many formerly incarcerated people across the state, Umar is using his second chance to help others in his situation organize and advocate for an end to discrimination in employment, housing, education, voting and other areas where they are often denied access.
“It’s not that we want to live a criminal life, it’s about survival,” says Angela Nelson, of Raleigh, North Carolina, who helped successfully advocate for Fair Chance Hiring policies in her county. “If you don’t have a GED and work-related skills, it’s hard to make an honest living. Some people make mistakes, but then they try to do right, yet they are treated the same as people who don’t want to do right. We are all lumped into the same category. Employers assume they can’t trust anyone who has been incarcerated, but that’s not true.”
Mike, Umar and Angela are now gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens. But many of the other 1.6 million people with an arrest or conviction history in North Carolina are not so fortunate. Years of futile efforts to find work after release from incarceration have worn them down. Some have returned to making money through crime. Some are living off of family members. Some are homeless.
Bakir Mujahid is currently an employment counselor at Step Up Ministries, where he helps formerly incarcerated people look for work. “I can see the frustration in their eyes,” he says. “They keep telling me there is no work. They are being turned away. Many of the people I try to help end up back in prison.”
Bakir knows a thing or two about the difficulty of finding work after incarceration. In 2006, when he was released from prison, he went straight to the employment security commission to look for work. He took every class and earned every certification they offered, hoping that it would give him an edge on the job market.
“I got every certification you could think of: emergency response, OSHA, lead-removal, CPS, waste water treatment, asbestos, you name it,” he says. “But because I had been to prison, those certificates weren’t good for any more than wiping my butt.”
Currently, organizations such as the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (where I work), SCSJ, Community Success Initiative, the NC Justice Center and many others are working to implement Fair Chance Hiring at the state level. In past years advocates have introduced bills into the North Carolina General Assembly that would require public employees to adopt Fair Chance Hiring practices, but the bills have stalled due to opposition from the majority party. This year, however, elected officials who were previously wary of the bill have begun to take an interest, in part due to concerns over the cost and impracticality of locking the same people up over and over again.
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Some nationally prominent big business and conservative figures have added their voices. For example, Charles Koch, co-owner of Koch Industries, which adopted Fair Chance Hiring voluntarily last year, wrote in an op-ed, “If ex-offenders can’t get a job, education or housing, how can we possibly expect them to have a productive life? And why should we be surprised when more than half of the people released from prison are again incarcerated within three years of their release?”
In 2015, on the heels of several large private corporations such as Koch Industries adopting Fair Chance, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia signed executive orders instituting the practice for public employees. North Carolina, sandwiched right between those two states, is feeling the squeeze, and in 2017 advocates will once again push for the introduction of a bill for public employees.
This time, they feel the outcome might be different. For the first time they have a sponsor from the majority party. Also, the Department of Public Safety, which oversees all people in the justice system, is actively working to promote Fair Chance Hiring, and a number of sheriffs—including from Wake County, the location of North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh—are on public record in support of Fair Chance. A growing number of local counties are adopting the practice and encouraging the state to do the same.
“This is not a partisan issue,” says Robert Childs, executive director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a nonprofit that has been advocating for the bill. “We all want a society of law-abiding, productive, taxpaying citizens, and we know that job opportunities are the best way to achieve that.”
North Carolina has made progress in other areas recently, which lends hope to the idea that the state is ripe for reform. In July this year, North Carolina legalized syringe exchange programs to help prevent disease among people who use drugs. Several law enforcement departments across the state have started or are looking to start LEAD programs, or law enforcement-assisted diversion, in which low-level drug offenders are diverted into case management services to address the root cause of their behavior, instead of shoveled into jails.
In fact “diversion programs” and the recognition that the criminal justice system is not always the best way to deal with the drug problem (all the formerly incarcerated people mentioned in this article were there for drug charges) is a hot topic now in North Carolina and other parts of the United States. The challenge is that as we try to keep people away from a system that often does more harm than good, we remember the people who have already been harmed by it. We cannot praise the virtues of a diversion program while at the same time discriminating against people who were not fortunate enough to be diverted.
Instead, we need to support a system in which formerly incarcerated people who are ready and willing to work and live fulfilling lives are given that opportunity. Creating an underclass who are denied meaningful participation in their communities because of past mistakes leads to higher taxes, higher crime and too many people who are not able to reach their full potential.
Employment opportunity is just one of many areas in desperate need of reform if we ever hope to undo the damage that decades of merciless drug policies, overstuffed prisons and splintered families have wrought. Fair Chance Hiring won’t fix everything, but it is one step in a long process of healing.
Tessie Castillo is the communications and advocacy coordinator of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC): @NCHarmReduction. Her last piece for The Influence was “How We Legalized Needle Exchange in a Southern Red State.”