Category Archives: criminal records

Convictions: Who feels the pain and for how long?

Once again, a shout out  to one of my favorite bloggers, Matt Kelley, who writes for the Criminal Justice blog at Change.org.  Matt recently highlighted some new research that provides data on the lasting costs of incarceration, highlighting who’s most affected and why this increases the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The study,  Incarceration and Social Inequality ,  conducted by sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington, appears in the MIT journal Daedalus.  In their research the authors found that the social inequality produced by mass incarceration was so enduring for 3 reasons: 

  1.  It’s invisible in that prisoners aren’t typically included in employment and other statistics, 
  2.  It’s cumulative in its impact,  and
  3. It affects not only adults but their children, spanning generations. 
Among their findings:
  •  Of men aged 20 to 34 — the largest chunk of the prison population incarceration rates have grown the most for the least educated populations.  In 1980, 10 percent of African Americans in this age range who hadn’t completed high school were incarcerated, today that rate is 37%.  Similarly, in 1980 less than 1 in 50 White dropouts were incarcerated, by 2008, that rate was had climbed to 1 in 8.
  •  The incarceration rate for black men born between 1975 to 1979  nearly quadrupled from the rate for those born twenty years earlier.  
  •  People who have been incarcerated and fall into the lowest income group, have the least mobility of anyone.
  •  The impact of conviction goes beyond the person sentenced to a prison term  to adversely affect their children.  How many kids  have a parent who is incarcerated?  Nearly 2 percent of white children, 3.5 % of Latino children and 11 % of African  children.  

This  dovetails with what legal scholar  Michelle Alexander talks about in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.  Alexander’s argument, well- supported by research, is that the unprecedented rise in people being sent to prison since the 1970s is creating a permanent underclass.  Individuals end up being punished in perpetuity, she says,  as their records are often to deny them employment, housing and other opportunities that might help them rebuild their lives.

 

You can read the full report here.    

 

 

 

 

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Filed under class issues, criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, justice reform, prison reform, reentry, research, second chances

Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, job training, personal responsibility

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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Helping women start over….

 I was happy to see  the National H.I.R.E. Network  devoted its 5th Annual Policy  Conference last week  to one of the most overlooked groups of ex-offenders.

You guessed it  – women.

The advocacy organization, which is dedicated to helping individuals with criminal records,  focused some much needed attention on the fact that , as I’ve noted, women face unique challenges in starting over after incarceration.  At the same time, most reentry programs and efforts are devoted to the needs of the men.   There’s a lack of understanding about the female experience behind bars, as well as what their needs are after release.   There’s also a stigma.  

I also think H.I.R.E. came up with some interesting  recommendations for change:

Within facilities

  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release.
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  • Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.

Reentry

  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.

Readers, how about you?    Are there any services you’ve seen that have helped women?  Anything you would add?

By the way, you can more about the conference here.

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Filed under criminal records, education ex-offenders, homelessness, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, starting over, women ex-offenders

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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Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, jobs ex-offenders, taking responsibility

Another employer who gets it…

I’m caught up with other projects this week, but would be remiss in not posting this story about Eric Smith, a carpenter in St. Paul, Minnesota who has no qualms about hiring people with criminal records.  Why?  It’s been his experience that if a  person is hardworking and good at what he does, his background has no relevance to the job. Smith says:

I tend to hire people I like personally — no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them — people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

I love the wisdom in this.  You can read the whole story here:  The Healing Power of Construction Work

Enjoy!

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Can you really erase your record?

I’ve alluded before to the fact that getting a conviction expunged doesn’t  guarantee you’ll come up clean in a background check.  Often, it takes no more than a Google search to find news of an arrest or sentencing, while some  government databases can still carry this  information well after an individual has gone to the trouble and expense to get his/her record sealed. 

Now some legislators in Ohio are trying to change that.  A bill introduced by Sen. Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland), would not only enable ex-offenders to get their records cleared after 5 years.  According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the new law would also:

1. Require individuals and private businesses to erase the historical record by destroying “records” they hold about the convictions of those whose cases are sealed.

2.  Require individuals, newspapers and other news media to delete stories from the Internet and their archives about the arrests and convictions of those who win expungement orders.  This, or face fines and/or damages from $250,000 to $1,000,000. 

Although the bill seems like a bit of a reach —  particularly in its attempt to get media organizations to delete the historical record — it does shed light on the  difficulties of starting over, even if you play by the rules.  My take:  People with criminal records who have had their records supposedly sealed, should not then have to have them used against them just because the information remains in the public record.

The question is whether a bill like this is the way to address it.  What do you think should be done?

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Filed under criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, expungement, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, second chances