Category Archives: background checks

Reentry updates: prison reform, women ex-offenders and the perils of Facebook

There’s a lot going on in the justice/reentry arena these days.  Here’s a quick update of what I’ve been following:

 Justice reform: will we or won’t we?

Last month, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb’s newly updated prison reform bill.  Alas, soon after, Webb announced he wouldn’t be running for a second term.  Which leaves me wondering: will a combination of  the Senator’s lame duck status and Congress’ need to focus on more pressing issues (wars, spending cuts, etc.) , push national justice reform again to the back burner?

Or will the action, as some – like the folks at Right on Crime – suggest, come more at the state level?  That’s certainly been the trend lately.    Last week, Georgia approved a bill that would set up a similar commission that will recommend reforms to that state’s prison system.   Meanwhile, the House in Oklahoma passed what’s being called the “most significant prison reform package in decades.”  Among other measures, the bill would make terms run concurrently and enhance the ability for sentences to be served within the community.

In addition, Ray Hill’s  the Prison Show  in Houston will be putting some artistic emphasis behind the need for change in our justice system when he hosts the Prison Reform Film Festival next month.

Women’s issues

I’ve worked almost exclusively with female offenders over the past couple of years.  So  I know their experiences in the justice system are very different than those of men, who make up the majority of offenders.   So I was happy to see NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show devote a segment recently to the unique challenges women face in terms of serving sentences and reentrying society.  There was also an interesting piece on Russian prison reforms are helping women. 

Facebook Follies

In my employment skills classes I caution students to be careful about the personal information they share on sites  like Facebook or Myspace. It’s standard procedure for many employers to turn to social networking pages or places like  Twitter  to find out more about a job candidate or who they’re  hanging out with.   Everyone’s heard stories about how ill-advised boasts or drunken photos have cost people jobs .

Nor are  employers or job recruiters the only people who might be looking at what you post.   As a recent article suggests supervision officers may soon find it easy to track someone’s post-release behavior online, including whether he or she is still associating with criminals.   This particular article even goes so far as to suggest how probation and parole officers might document what they find  in order to have evidence in a revocation hearing.

Another reason it might be worth keeping an eye on your site, and what you and others post there.

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Update: the good news and the bad news if you have a conviction

Other projects have kept me from posting on this blog as frequently as I’d like.  But I wanted to pass along some recent developments affecting those with criminal records.

 First the good news:

The pubic might not be as punitive as you think …

 In fact, Americans are surprisingly supportive of sentencing offenders to shorter-terms to reduce the high costs of incarceration. Some 91 percent of respondents to a recent survey on crime and punishment by the Pew Center for the States  said their bigger concern by far was reducing crime.   To the majority of folks, the time non-violent offenders spent in custody was less important than whether the system did a better job of  making sure that they didn’t  commit a new crime after their release.

So why the disconnect with the political rhetoric?  As the Crime Report aptly noted, for most Americans this issue is more personal than political.  Unfortunately, no politician wants to appear to be soft on crime — so supporting shorter sentences is often a non-starter.

On a related note, Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, has so far stuck to his pledge to  help restore voting rights to felons, helping more individuals than either of his predecessors  notes an article in Sunday’s Washington Post.   Currently,  some 300,000 people who have served time for felony convictions and remain unable to vote.   McDonnell’s office has so far approved 780 of 889 applications, and while the numbers aren’t huge, the governor has earned praise for the speed  at which he acted.

….but hurdles remain 

A  reader sent me a link to an interesting series of articles on a controversy in California.  Apparently,  revelations that a number of former felons, some with violent crimes in their past had been hired  to work as home health aides and caregivers for the elderly as part of a state program have caused quite a furor.

An inspection of employment records, which included background checks, identified 996 felons in the program and removed 786, including one person convicted of abuse and another of medicare fraud. A court ruling prohibited removal of  the rest saying their offenses don’t relate to the work they’re doing.

A good sign.  Obviously, I think the primary concern has to be protecting a possibly vulnerable population of individuals needing care.  At the same time, I’m wary of  witch hunts against people who have served their time and gone on to live law-abiding lives. As the story notes:

“We don’t want to put anybody at risk of abuse or theft, but sometimes your options of who you can get to work for you are very narrow,” said John Wilkins, a recipient of the services and co-chairman of a coalition of advocacy groups and unions.

Further, he said, “I’ve had two providers work for me who had criminal histories who were two of the best providers I have had. There is a lot of gray area. It is just not black and white.”

It a tough dilemma, and,  I hope that ultimately that each case can be decided on an individual  basis.  A couple of my students  have pursued jobs as home health aides after their release very successfully.  

 What do you think?   Is California being too lenient or too short-sighted?

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How to answer interview questions about your criminal record

A reader recently wrote to ask about how to deal with what he referred to as “the inevitable questions about my record” during a  job search. Since this is a major hurdle  for most ex-offenders, I thought it might be worth sharing what most re-entry experts tell their clients.

Be honest.   Background checks are simply too easy to do these days to run the risk of being dishonest.   And even if you don’t get caught right away, if your employer finds out later that’s grounds to fire you — as a few of my students confess they’ve learned the hard way. 

Take responsibility   One of my fellow instructors refers to this as “owning it.”  You’ve got to admit your conviction and not make excuses.   For some people this can be as simple as saying, “yes, I was convicted of a felony” and giving the reason (my judgment was clouded by…immaturity, drugs, financial stress, poor values, hanging with the wrong crowd, etc.)  Others may feel compelled to identify the offense, perhaps because of mitigating circumstances.  Just remember to keep it brief, look the employer in the eye  and beware of too much information.

Move on.  This is the point where you want to talk about concrete things you have done to improve yourself and turn your life around.  Getting your GED, completing a drug program, holding down a succession of jobs since your release, pursuing further education or training — anything that shows steps you have taken  to change. 

Acknowledge the employer’s concerns    Say something such as, “I understand how you may be hesitant or you may have concerns, BUT, I want to assure you that I will do a great job for you.”    As uncomfortable as this may be to acknowledge, it shows the employer that you are sensitive to his/her concerns, but determined now to let your past interfere with your work life.

Make your pitch and close.   End with a bang by reiterating that you  have the skills and attitude for the position and that you will do a great job. 

Following,  are some more detailed  examples of how to deal with this tough question, courtesy of an  OAR workshop on interview skills:

Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

“Unfortunately, yes. When I was younger and very foolish, I was convicted of  a felony.  I absolutely regret my actions and committed myself to changing — which I have. Since that time I have taken courses, had excellent job review and become focused on where I want to go with my life.  I am never going to make those kinds of choices again.  I understand you may have concerns about this, but please be assured that I have left those poor decisions in the past.  I am committed to doing an excellent job for you.  I have the skills required for this job, and I hope you will consider me for this position. 

In your application, you wrote “will discuss at interview,” in answer to the question of whether you’ve been convicted of a felony, could you explain that to me now? 

“Sir, I want you to know that in the past I made a poor decision which was to get involved with drugs.  It got to the point that the Courts got involved and I can honestly say that it was the best thing to happen to me.  Because of that I completed substance abuse treatment and have been clean for two years.  I am a productive member of my community and will never go back to that life.  I completely understand if you have concerns.  However, I want you to know that I am tested regularly, I am committed to clean living and going to work every day.  I have a lot of skills in this area and know I can do a great job for your company if you allow me the opportunity to show you.”

Is there anything in your personal history that I should be aware of before doing a background check?

“I don’t think that there is anything that will  prevent me from being an outstanding maintenance manager for your company.  However, I would like to share with you that I was convicted of a felony.  I grew up in a bad neighborhood and made some poor choices.  While I was incarcerated, however, I made a decision to turn my life around and completed my GED.  I’m also working towards completing a welding certification program.  I believe I have the skills I need to be successful and am eager to also learn on the job.  Most importantly, I’m willing to work as hard as I need to in order to convince you that I am an honest, dependable and motivated employee.

Remember, these are just examples to get you thinking.    Why don’t you try to answer this question yourself in your own words.  Practice it out loud a few times.   Once  you are comfortable with what you have, send it to me at this blog.  I’ll run the best ones, and offer suggestions on how you might make yours better.

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Criminal background checks under fire: an update

The discrimination lawsuit alleging the U.S. Census Bureau inappropriately used  arrest records for  job screening continues to heat up.  

On August 5, attorneys filed an amended complaint against the Commerce Department noting that  the EEOC had warned the Census Bureau in advance that its hiring procedures could result in “massive” racial and ethnic discrimination.  In seeking to fill more than one million temporary jobs earlier this year,  the Census Bureau subjected all applicants to an FBI records check and required that  they provide written proof of the dispositions for any arrests or convictions.

 Although people with criminal records are not specifically protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using such criteria to deny employment has been found to have disparate impact on certain protected groups, and is therefore discriminatory. 

In the lawsuit, which was brought by a coalition of civil rights organizations,  attorneys allege that  African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who applied for Census jobs were at a disadvantage, since since these ethnicities experience a disproportionate number of arrests relative to their populations in the U.S.

Ironically, under the Census Bureau’s hiring  procedures some applicants who actually worked during the 1990 Census were denied jobs this time around.  Due to the ease of background checks, this also has become a problem in private industry, as laid off individuals – many of whom have been working productively for years –  find old offenses coming back to haunt them in their job search.  

As I wrote earlier, the EEOC is working to come up with new guidelines regarding the  use of criminal records in screening.  In general, employers are barred from using blanket bans and  should be taking into account whether an offense relates to the work being done, as well as the individual’s suitability for the job.  It may be justifiable, for example, for a company to decline to hire someone convicted of theft or embezzlement as an accountant or cashier. It’s less defensible to use an arrest record as a reason not to hire someone for such a job because they were  convicted of a drug or alcohol charge, particularly if they’ve completed treatment and remained clean.

Let’s hope the EEOC comes out with something in writing soon.   Perhaps these new guidelines  might be more difficult to ignore.

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Ban the box update

As I noted in my last post, this week is devoted to checking on the status of legislation affecting  ex-offenders.

One of the more effective strategies — and one that seems to be  gaining steam —  is the  “Ban the Box” grassroots campaign.  The box, of course,  is that section of the employment application that asks about whether you have a criminal record.  The question can come in a variety of forms as  blogger James Walker notes in his very comprehensive post. Sometimes it’s even a series of questions, as I discovered when my son recently applied at our local grocery store for a job as a bag boy.  These are usually yes/no questions, typically followed by a space where you’re asked to explain any charges in further detail.

The problem is that once you check “Yes,” your application often goes no further.  One human resources professional recently told me  that in cases where someone answered yes in an online application at his former employer, the application was automatically deleted. 

Since 2003, some 30 cities states and counties have eliminated the box and the question from applications.  These include:

    Hawaii (1998), Minnesota (2009) and New Mexico, this year.  Just last month,  Connecticut passed a law removing the box from applications for public jobs.  Bills are also pending in Wisconsin and Nebraska.   Major cities that have banned the box for government jobs include San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul.   

The National Employment Law Project offers a comprehensive update by state and city.  The Safer Foundation also provides a detailed list of recent legislation. 

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While I was out ….

Happy belated Independence Day!  There’s been so much going on  that I’m sorry to have been away. 

Now that I’m back, however, I’ll try to spend the rest of this week talking about what’s happening on the legislative front in terms of criminal justice reform and other measures to assist ex-offenders.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)

On that score,  the first thing I wanted to direct your attention to is some terrific work being done by Representative  Bobby Scott (D, VA) to help offenders with some of the barriers faced in reentry.  Translation: he wants to do something to minimize the negative impacts of background checks. 

 On June 9, Scott chaired hearings on the topic and introduced  H.R. 5300, the “Fairness and Accuracy in Employment Background Checks Act.” If passed, this bill would require the FBI to update it’s woefully inaccurate database so that any arrest or conviction records use correct and up -to -date information.  As I’ve noted before, the FBI database is notorious for failing to note cases where charges were dropped, or a defendant was later found innocent.   This bill would require these records to be updated.   

I found all this information and even copies of the testimony before Scott’s committee in a recent update from the always thorough National Reentry Resource Center.  So check it out.

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Employers, what will it take to get you to hire ex-offenders?

The federal agency that supervises offenders on probation and parole in Washington, DC  isn’t going to tiptoe around this question anymore.  Instead, at a time when a bad economy has made finding a job with a record even more difficult, officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency have started flat-out asking employers whether they’d consider bringing a former offender on board, and if not what might be done to change their mind.

It’s all part of a new media campaign designed to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone with a criminal record is the same.  On any given day, the CSOSA’s Community Supervision Program is actively responsible for more than 16,000 offenders, many of whom are alcohol and drug-free, skilled, employment- ready and have put their past behaviors well behind them, says Leonard Sipes, the agency’s senior public affairs specialist.  Yet, only about 53 percent of those individuals are currently working — a statistic CSOSA aims to improve by confronting the issue head on.

” There’s a certain point where you’re not going to make an omelet unless you  scramble some eggs,”  Snipes said.  “So we decided to take a risk.    What do we have to lose by trying and giving businesses a voice? Sure, some will be harsh and negative, some will stereotype – but if  we don’t engage in this conversation things will stay the same.  Hopefully by doing this we’ll  open the doors for one person to get hired and then maybe for two more the next time and build from there.”

The CSOSA will run video and radio interviews with employers on  its website and YouTube.   While some employers have been encouraging,  many  have told Sipes that they simply don’t want to hire ex-offenders because they’re worried about having to deal with trouble.  “They want ironclad guarantees that the person will show up and do the job without creating problems,” he says.

Often, the companies want CSOSA to stay involved with the individual, so its caseworkers can help handle any situations that might arise.  Typically, the agency will refer only the most employment ready, mature and reliable individuals in order to avoid such problems, but they are willing to work with the employer to help ensure things go smoothly.  It’s in everyone’s interest, Sipes says, since studies show getting offenders back to work reduces recidivism and improves  public safety.  Employers who hire ex-cons can also take advantage of incentives, including  tax credits and federal bonding.

What can ex-offenders do to improve their chances?  Feedback to CSOSA so far indicates most employers are simply looking for someone with a good attitude.  Skills aren’t always as important, as they will often teach the right person, Sipes notes.  “If you  present well and  can say, ‘ I’m going to be here every day and I’m going to be a benefit to your company and all I need is an opportunity,’ —  a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system have a hard time expressing that, but that’s what employers want to hear.”

It will be interesting to see what bringing this conversation to the surface will do.  Readers, how about you?  If you know companies that hire or don’t hire ex-offenders, what are their reasons?  Do you think more employers can be convinced to give former felons a second chance?

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Job interviews and ex-offenders: maybe it’s not the crime that cost you the job

In my last two class sessions, we’ve been talking about answering job interview questions.  Yes, that includes the $64,000 biggie:  Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

And yet, for all the emphasis put on being able to look an employer in the eye and honestly discuss your record or those huge gaps in your work history —  it’s often the simple and seemingly benign questions that can trip up an ex-offender. 

This came to light last week after a lively class  discussion about what to say when an employer opens an interview by saying:  “Tell me about yourself.” 

Most of my students felt this was an easy question. 

It’s not. In fact, if you don’t handle this one carefully you can end up stumbling right out of the starting gate.   Despite seeming open-ended, an employer isn’t asking for your life history here. Nor does he want  a long-winded dissertation on why this job  is your dream come true.  As one inmate wisely noted, the employer doesn’t just want to know what you’ve done in the past, but who you are and what you can do for them.   In Michelle Rafter’s  blog for SecondAct.com, Georgia Tech University professor Nathan Bennett  offers good advice when he says,  focus not on what you enjoy, but on what you bring to an organization that is uinque and hard for others to copy.

So how do you  do this?   The key is tailoring your skills and abilities to the needs of the employer, but in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like a canned sales pitch.  Sally Chopping, a Pittsburgh-based interview and public speaking coach, suggests breaking the question down into 3 parts

  1. Identify the 3 most important qualities for the job.
  2. Mention the most relevant last job you had and highlight one of your achievements.
  3. Say why you’d like to work for the particular company. 

If you put these together as she does, you end up with a response that encapsulates your unique strengths and abilities in a way that shows how they will benefit the company. 

This video, courtesy of CollegeGrad.com, (which is equally applicable to jobs that don’t require college degrees, by the way) also spells out a good approach to the “Tell me about yourself”  query:

How about you?   What have you said when an employer opens with this question?  What’s worked and what hasn’t?

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How law-abiding are you? Take 2

Back at the beginning of the month, I invited readers to take a brief poll that asked two questions:

  1. Have you ever committed a crime?
  2. If so, were you arrested or did you get away with it?

The purpose of the exercise was to show that, in many cases, the poor judgment and casual morality we attribute to offenders may be shared by plenty of others who have never served time.  In fact,  a full 90 percent of the poll respondents admitted to breaking the law.  Of those, only 21 percent were actually arrested, and 58 percent said they got away with what they did completely.

Not surprisingly, these unscientific results dovetail with actual research.   Generally only a small percentage, even of violent crimes, result in arrests.

In fact, in a 1995 report on interpreting crime statistics,  Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of  Violence noted:

The probability of arrest for these very serious violent  offenses is very low, even when self-reported offenses were restricted to those involving a weapon or injury. For males, less than 10 arrests per 100 self-reported robberies and less than five arrests per 100 aggravated assaults.

Now ultimately, if a person commits enough crimes, the probability of arrest goes up.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that the mere absence of a record doesn’t mean someone is a “safer” choice for an employer to hire.   As I’ve written in the past, using arrest and convictions records to screen out candidates for jobs and to make decisions about individuals isn’t foolproof.

As these statistics show:  you’re not necessarily getting people with better judgment.  In some cases, you’re merely getting people with better luck.

Yesterday in answering questions for ex-offenders, Jail to Job’s Eric Mayo recommended an offender “look at a criminal record as a handicap he has to overcome.”   I think that’s pretty good advice for society, as well.  When employers consider a job candidate, the smartest ones look at any disability or shortcomings  in terms of how this impacts the measure of the whole person.  Can he or she still meet the requirements of the job?   How does she present herself?  Based on what I’ve seen of this person  do I feel that I can trust him?  Does this individual seem to have taken responsibility and learned from his/her mistakes and shortcomings?

In many ways, the answers to these questions will tell you much more about a person than his or her record.

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Jail to Job’s Eric Mayo answers questions for ex-offenders

Today, we’re very fortunate to have Eric Mayo visiting Out and Employed  to answer some of the most common questions ex-offenders  have about their post-release job search.  Eric is an author, lecturer and motivational speaker who began working with the unemployed and underemployed 12 years ago.  When he found many of them had criminal histories, he began to focus on the barriers these individuals face.  He now writes the popular Jail to Job blog, where he regularly takes on all types of queries from former offenders and their families.  I recently named Jail to Job one of my must-read blogs.  It’s certainly one I turn to regularly for Mayo’s deeply researched and insightful answers to some tough questions.   Here’s what he had to say to some from my readers and students:

What is the most common question you hear from ex-offenders?

The most common question I get is “Where can I find a Job?”   Jobs are always where you find them.  There is no one place to get a job because jobs can be found just about anywhere.  You  have to be ready to dig, network and dig some more.

Many people got their job leads from people they know.  This is called networking.  Networking is the most effective method of finding employment leads.  Most jobs are never advertised because they are usually filled by personal contacts.  In fact, employers would rather hire someone referred to them by people they know rather than to painfully sort through resumes and applications.  People in your life who might be  potential leads for a job include:

·         Friends

·         Relatives

·         Neighbors

·         Parole/probation officers

·         Members of your religious group ( ministers, priests, imams, etc.)

·         Former teachers

·         Former co- workers

·         Former employers

·         Classmates

·         Casual acquaintances

·         People you do business with (hairstylists, barbers, doctors)

In each group, see if you can list five people that you can contact.  That is at least 55 people that could help you in your job search.  Let each person know that you are looking for a job and that any information they have for you would be helpful.  Have copies of your resume handy for your contacts to give to other people.

Never ask for a job.  Only ask for information about job leads or for advice.  The more people you’re able to contact, the more leads you will get.  Remember, this is a numbers game.  Often getting a job lead may circumvent the entire application process and the dreaded “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” question.

What’s the best way for ex-offenders to  answer questions about their  criminal record that appear on job applications?  Sometimes reentry counselors recommend writing “will discuss at interview.”  Is this a good strategy?

That totally depends on the question. The question is usually “Have you ever been convicted of a crime other that a traffic violation.”  “Will discuss at interview” does not answer the question.  Often applications with this response are removed from consideration.

What is the biggest mistake ex-offenders make when they look for jobs?

Many ex-offenders are simply not competitive.  Many lack interviewing skills, interpersonal skills and visual presentation.  Getting a job with a criminal record is tough enough.  Without even these basic skills, it’s that much tougher.

One-stop Career Centers provide an extensive list of services that can help anyone prepare for a successful job search.  I have posted a video on Youtube that speaks briefly to this.  You can find it here:


Often ex-offenders will decide to move to another place to escape their records.  Is this a good strategy?  Does it work?

In this age of computers that offer instant access to information, moving to escape records is nearly impossible.

Are there certain jobs that ex-offenders simply can’t get?   How difficult is it for a former felon to get a job with the federal government?  In the medical field?

The federal government does background checks, but having a record will not automatically disqualify ex-offenders or felons.  Licensing or certification in the medical field will vary from state to state  and is at the discretion of each state’s licensing board. Ex-offenders and felons can inquire directly to their state’s board to see if their  respective conviction will keep them from being licensed.

Are there particular companies or industries you know of that are more open to hiring ex-offenders?

It is my experience that ex-offenders and felons will be more successful in the building trades or construction fields.  Manufacturing, warehousing, restaurant and maintenance are other options.

Are ex-offenders required to disclose information about arrests that didn’t lead to convictions or juvenile offenses?  Can companies still use information obtained through a background check about these types of offenses as a reason not to hire an individual?

Applicant’s should pay careful attention to the wording because it will vary from application to application.  Typically applications will ask for convictions and not arrests.  Applicant should always give the information that is asked for.  As for juvenile convictions, they will not appear on most background checks.  Employers may have access to law enforcement background checks that will include all convictions including juvenile and sealed.  It is next to impossible, however, to contend exactly which information is used to disqualify an individual.

When should ex-offenders consider expungement?  In the days when so much information is available on line, does getting your record expunged still help?

It may help, but most states are very conservative when it comes to expungement and sealing of records.  I encourage ex-offenders and felons to simply look at their criminal records as handicaps that they will have to work extra hard to overcome.

What other misinformation or bad advice do you see out there for ex-offenders?

Often unscrupulous attorneys will claim to be able to have records expunged.  A little homework and a trip to the local legal aid office will help ex-offenders and felons get honest advice as well as assistance.

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