L.A.’s Formerly Incarcerated Win a Fair Chance at Employment

The City of Angels is the latest municipality to ‘ban the box’ that asks job applicants if they have previous criminal convictions.
(Photo: James Leynse/Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Hunting for a job in a competitive economy can be stressful. But imagine having to check a box on a job application saying you have been convicted of a crime. Odds are, a hiring manager won’t give your application a chance, or will discourage you from filling one out in the first place.

“One person told me that he had been in the house crying all day because he needed a second job, and every time he went to look for a job, they kept telling him you might as well not, you know. Just don’t fill out an application,” 41-year-old Kusema Thomas, senior navigator at Homeboy Industries, told TakePart.

“You’re told that you’ve paid your debt to society, but there is no one who’s willing to give you that opportunity or that chance,” he said.

The L.A.-based nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated individuals and ex–gang members reintegrate into society backed the Fair Chance Initiative, which bars employers from asking job seekers about criminal convictions until after they receive job offers. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pass the legislation that will “ban the box” from applications for employment. Approved by a 12–1 vote, the measure will go into effect in January 2017.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Curren Price proposed the new law in 2014. “I proposed the Fair Chance Initiative two years ago because for far too long, there has been discrimination in employment on the basis of criminal record. I personally have met individuals who have been haunted by past convictions and no matter how hard they try, are unable to get their lives on track,” Price said in a statement.

Thomas is confident the initiative will reduce recidivism. “I haven’t met one person who has come home from jail who doesn’t want to try to reintegrate back into the community,” he said. But often they “will have no way of making a living or taking care of their family, [and] a lot of them come home and have kids that are grown up.”

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After being incarcerated himself and having difficulty finding employment even at fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, Thomas began working at Community Coalition, a social justice nonprofit in South Los Angeles. He began helping out at Homeboy Industries to support those who were going through the same struggles.

In August, the National Employment Law Project released a compilation of research supporting fair chance policies. One three-year recidivism study in 2008 found that there was a 16 percent recidivism rate among formerly incarcerated people who had one year of employment. Compare that with the 52.3 percent recidivism rate for all Department of Correction releases in that study, and post-employment at the national level seems to be a saving grace.

Homeboy Industries has a recidivism rate of 35 percent compared with the national rate, which is about 65 percent, according to the organization. “Homeboy has been doing this for over 20 years. You know, we look at people. We don’t look at records,” Thomas told TakePart.

Having the city council pass the Fair Chance Initiative shows that “our community believes that they can do the job—that they have the skills,” said Thomas. He emphasized that many of these formerly incarcerated individuals have been to school and learn other employable skills in prison, from construction to janitorial services. “It’s like, ‘Look at me and the person I am, and let me paint the picture of that, instead of you painting a picture by just looking at my background and never giving me an opportunity,’ ” he said.

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In 1998, Hawaii passed the first ban-the-box law, and since then the legislation has expanded to several states and local jurisdictions. However, in most places it doesn’t apply to private employers, and that is what the legislation passed in L.A. includes.

Along with reducing recidivism, removing employment discrimination boosts the economy and lifts the families of formerly incarcerated individuals out of poverty. A study conducted in 2011 found that if 100 formerly incarcerated persons were put back to work, their lifetime earnings could increase by a total of $55 million.

Familial ties have been regarded as a factor in prisoner reentry. For many of those formerly incarcerated, having children causes immense stress. “They’re trying to reintegrate back into their children’s lives as well and trying to be parents,” says Thomas. The difficulty is that many children hold grudges for having felt abandoned. So the pressure of finding a job increases as a way to make amends. Thomas explained, “The only way they know how to start off is [by] trying to provide for the children in monetary ways, and they can’t even do that part.”

So far, Homeboy Industries hasn’t received any negative feedback about the passage of the law, but Thomas anticipates that there will be detractors. “I’m sure there are going to be people who are upset about it, who don’t want to give people a second chance,” he said. “But if you don’t want to give people a second chance, what do you want to with it?”

“Without the stigma of a criminal record, job seekers will soon be evaluated solely by their skills, qualifications, and merits,” Price said. “We have to remember people are incarcerated to serve time. Once they serve their time, we shouldn’t be punishing them further. Not allowing people to find employment is a cruel form of punishment.”