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© 2015 by Faith in Florida

Movement trying to help ex-felons get jobs

October 23, 2014

 

‘Ban the Box’ event explores removing certain questions from applications

 

BY ASHLEY D. THOMAS, DAYTONA TIMES

 

A seminar held Monday at Bethune-Cookman University centered on a nationwide initiative to remove an employment barrier for ex-felons.

 

The “Ban the Box’’ campaign asks employers to remove questions regarding conviction histories from their employment applications and to adopt hiring practices that give applicants a fair chance.

 

“This seminar/workshop style event is designed to educate B-CU students, leaders, and the faith community on key issues while building a training base in effort to create the passion and energy needed to move people to action (involvement in the campaign),” Dr. Diana Lee, director of the Odessa Chambliss Center for Health Equity told the Daytona Times.

 

“It is also a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of reinstating the rights of individuals that have served time and are trying to become responsible citizens.

 

The combination of directly impacted individuals, students and the social justice community has the potential to 1) create local conversation about justice in Daytona Beach, 2) humanize directly impacted individuals through the power of storytelling, and 3) make joining Ban the Box a moral imperative.”

 

Adopted elsewhereBeginning Jan. 1, 2015, St. Petersburg will “ban the box’’ on job applications for the city that asks applicants if they have a criminal record.

 

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has called the proposal “good for our economy.”The proposal doesn’t eliminate background checks or even asking the question but delays the criminal history inquiries until later in the hiring process.

 

The change in St. Petersburg will affect only city jobs and not private sector jobs. The policy also allows background checks for city jobs and mandates them for public safety positions to be reviewed later in the hiring process.

 

The Ban the Box movement is spreading across the United States. According to a Ban the Box guide from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), approximately 70 U.S. cities and counties as well as 13 states have passed Ban the Box legislation.

 

The question about past convictions appears on applications for employment, housing, public benefits, college admissions, loans, and opportunities for volunteer service.

 

The conversation at B-CU led by moderator Mykal Tairu began with an account from Jeffery Dove, pastor of Bethel AME Church of DeLand. “In 1995, I was a hustler, I sold dope, smoked dope and walked with a 357,” he began.

 

“I was arrested 12 times and I was redeemed. We can’t count people out.”

 

Dove opened the Bethel Empowerment Center (BEC) in DeLand in May, which serves the low-income, elderly, unemployed and those returning home from prison.

 

“The marker of felon has replaced the marker of race as a way of being stigmatized and discriminating against people, so I won’t say I’m not hiring you because you’re Black, I’m not hiring you because you’re a felon,” Dornita Rogers, a community organizer with Faith in Florida told the audience.

 

“Because people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, employers’ use of arrest or conviction history has a disparate impact on those communities,” she continued.

 

Faith in Florida believes that the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, coupled with the lack of meaningful and quality opportunities, have contributed to a state of crisis in the country.

 

The organization supports restoring civil and voting rights to 1.5 million disenfranchised Florida citizens. Due to rules enacted in 2011 under Gov. Rick Scott, returning citizens must wait seven to 13 years for the opportunity to have their rights restored, including rights for housing, education, jobs, and the fundamental right to vote.

 

The panel discussion included three persons that were directly affected by such practices explaining how that simple box made such an impact on their lives.

 

Susan Rodriquez said she never thought this would ever be her story. Rodriguez was a former drug and alcohol abuser and served time for robbery and other crimes.

 

“I was blessed with a family that said they would give me one more chance. I went to Ruby Tuesdays to waitress because I was very good at it. The one rule of recovery is you do not lie. So I checked it. I checked the box. I made phone calls, I did not get hired. I kept trying and trying. To me if that box wasn’t there, I could have at least went in for an interview, and then been honest with that person before they ran my background check. At least give me a chance. But once I checked that box, that’s it.

 

“So then I decided OK, I want to vote. I went away in 2008, this country was crazy and I wanted to vote. They said, ‘Well, you could apply in seven years.’ I said seven what?

 

And that’s just to apply.”

 

“So I said if I can’t get a job, I’ll go to school, I’ll get my degree and then I’ll be able to get a job. So they said I need to prove that I was a Florida resident.”

 

Rodriguez’ birthday had passed three days before she was released from prison and her identification was expired.

 

She had her prison ID, which though she was housed in Florida, was not valid. “I say OK, what do I need?”

 

Rodriquez eventually was able to get work release papers that proved her residency and enrolled in school.

 

“My story is similar to Susan’s,” Lashanna Tyson, a community organizer with Faith in Florida said.

 

“I served 13 years in prison. I have been home for three years. The first stop I made was the same college I had attended before going to prison. Even though I had been incarcerated in Florida for 13 years and lived here all my life, I was told that I would have to pay out-of-state-tuition if I wanted to go to college.”

 

“So I couldn’t go back to college then,” she continued. “I knew that I had worked hard for the past 13 years and I could still work two jobs and not be tired at the end of the day. However, it was that box on the application. I couldn’t get a seat at the table for them to see who I am. Coming home from prison after 13 years and having nothing and can’t get nothing, that is a hurtful feeling. I had nothing else to do but fall to my knees and call out to God, why even let me come home?”

 

“But when God does something, he doesn’t just do it a little bit, he shows all the way out, so now I’m a licensed real estate agent,” she said Monday to applause. “I did the same thing you all are doing.”

 

“I sold my first house in three months, I had enough money to pay for rent six months in advance and I searched all day long, all day long, just to hear no, no, no.”

 

“Because that same box is on those applications,” she continued. “I asked around and said ‘No, for how long?’ Do you know those people had the nerve to tell me 99 years? Ninety-nine years and they mean that. That’s forever.”

 

The proponents for Ban the Box in other localities have various levels and participation methods.

 

For example, Newark, New Jersey, has prohibited all employers and all housing providers from inquiring about an applicant’s conviction records until that candidate has been found “otherwise qualified” for the job or housing.

 

Philadelphia requires all employers (public and private, including city contractors) to delay any background check until a candidate has been selected for the position, and received a “conditional offer” of employment.

 

The City of Boston and the City of Oakland do background checks only for jobs with unsupervised contact with finances, or vulnerable populations (elderly, youth, disabled people).

 

At Monday’s meeting, Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry said he was interested in knowing more about the initiative and supports measures that increase accessibility and lowers barriers for those who wish to work.

 

“I’m certainly interested in it, but I would have to learn more about it. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart,” Henry told the Times. “This is the first I’ve heard of it so I’m not in the position to say this is something we should go full steam ahead with. But certainly I want to find ways for us as a city to make employment more accessible to people who are returning from incarceration.”

 

Faith in Florida is pushing to put the “Ban the Box” initiative on the ballot in 2016.