Want Real Safety? Try Jobs and Housing

In 2004, San Francisco banned the question "Have you ever been convicted by a court?" and its accompanying check box from government job applications. Now, a growing number of people are pushing for an expansion of these "Ban the Box."
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In 2004, San Francisco banned the question "Have you ever been convicted by a court?" and its accompanying check box from government job applications. Since then, so have seven states and dozens of cities and counties. Now, a growing number of formerly incarcerated people, activists and supporters at City Hall are pushing for an expansion of these "Ban the Box" policies. If they succeed, ours will be the first U.S. city where the ban would also apply to private business hiring practices, government vendors, as well as housing applications.

Studies from the Department of Justice Statistics and plenty of universities and nonprofits show that if you give someone with a record a better chance at finding housing and above-ground work, the chances that that person will stay out of prison go way up. Should these new Ban the Box policies be enacted, it'll be a huge step toward slowing the revolving door that is Corrections in California -- a system that overwhelmingly targets people of color, low-income, undocumented and queer and transgender people.

Zoe Wigfall knows firsthand how hard it can be to get a job with a past conviction. Before finding work as an Administrative Assistant at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children here in San Francisco, the single mom of two applied to several companies that weren't shy about rejecting candidates based on their criminal records. Home Depot sent her a letter in the mail explaining as much. And when she applied to be a school bus driver, "I did the 40 hours in class that was required, and I was on the driving part of it when I was called into the administration office." There, they told her that she "wasn't a good fit" for their school district. For Wigfall, the experience was extremely disheartening. "I can't drive a school bus because of things I did twenty years ago."

She adds that lack of employment is "a really big factor in the recidivism rate," defined as the chances that a person will go back to prison after getting out. "If they're not employed, they're going to go back to what they know, and it's going to be a revolving door -- in and out, in and out." Your average person with a conviction history tends to already have barriers to opportunity such as poverty, so making it harder to apply for work and housing serves to push that person back into the activities that got them into trouble in the first place -- eventually funneling them back behind bars.

To be sure, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation doesn't have a great record when it comes to either corrections or rehabilitation. Its latest numbers show that the state's recidivism rate--in this case, the chance that prisoners will go back to prison within the first three years of their parole--is 65.1 percent. That's 22 percent higher than the national average.

For people into economic arguments, the California Legislative Analyst's office places the cost of imprisoning someone for a year at just over $47,000 -- money that could go to training programs, affordable housing, and creating jobs.

With all of these issues in mind, back in 2010, San Francisco's Reentry Council and Human Rights Commission -- both city-sponsored organizations whose members include Mayor-appointed ex-prisoners -- had a meeting with several locally based organizations to talk about the barriers to jobs and housing confronting people with conviction histories in San Francisco. Soon after, All of Us or None, the National Employment Law Project, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and National Housing Law Project drafted potential amendments to the city's administrative and police codes.

Linda Evans, a formerly incarcerated organizer with All of Us or None (a project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children) helped to write the amendments, which already have support from several city supervisors and will be introduced sometime this fall. She believes that "passing these amendments in San Francisco is crucial for poor neighborhoods and communities of color in the Bay Area. They'll allow people with records to access jobs and safe housing more easily."

About seven million people in California carry criminal records, according to the National Employment Law Project. That's seven million people who face discrimination when they apply for work, whose job application goes straight to the trash can without any consideration of their qualifications. And good luck with finding a place to live. Not only is San Francisco the country's most expensive place to rent an apartment, if you've got a record, you'll likely also face restrictions on living in public housing. Evans cites the case of 75-year-old Oakland grandmother Willie Lee, who was evicted from her apartment when her grandson was arrested for smoking a joint in a nearby parking lot. When you hear stories like this, "That's when you really think that the purpose of this must be to destabilize communities of color, because that certainly is the impact," says Evans.

The proposed amendments promote the idea that people should have the chance to have their conviction records to be looked at case-by-case, with a focus on individual convictions and each one's relationship to job responsibilities or tenant safety. The amendments also set guidelines for employers and landlords about when and how conviction records can be considered. Put simply, they'll delay looking into conviction history until after it's clear that someone who is applying for a job or a house is otherwise qualified for that job or house. Certain employers are exempt from taking certain ex-prisoners -- for people who are worried about the preferred scenario put forth by critics, the local elementary school hiring someone convicted of sexual assault, these aren't the laws that are going to put them there. Background checks are already legally required for jobs related to children, law enforcement, and the fire department.

Ultimately, people who were formerly incarcerated benefit, their families benefit and communities benefit. As people attempt to rebuild their lives, Evans says, "the amendments will keep our whole communities safer, because people getting out of prison or jail will experience less discrimination" and, particularly important in communities that are targets of a defective system, "more hope for a better life."

Adds Wigfall, "People make mistakes. And I think because they make a mistake, they shouldn't be condemned for the rest of their lives. It's really important that people give other people a second chance."

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