President Obama continues to push for the reform of laws that hinder the re-entry of prisoners into the real world. The Huffington Post reports that on Monday he will announce a series of measures designed to reduce obstacles facing former prisoners reintegrating into society, including an executive order directing federal employers to delay asking questions about a job applicant's criminal history until later in the application process.
I remember all too well my experience with this issue when I went for my first job interview upon my release after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a non-violent drug crime.
When I stepped into the firm's reception area I felt like a fish out of water. The ride in the elevator to the 49th floor had taken the wind out of me. I felt embarrassed by the fact that I had hesitated in pushing the buttons on the control panel of the elevator because of its high tech look. This was a recurrent problem I had with any contraption that I was not familiar with.
The receptionist smiled and introduced herself as I approached her. I told her who I was and she handed me a standard employment form and asked me to answer the questions on it. The reception area was lavishly arranged with expensive furniture and amazing glass displays that contained inventions that the firm represented. There was even a model of the first airplane invented by their client the Wright Brothers, I looked around and was in awe. What blew my mind was the majestic view from its over-sized glass windows where I could see all of Manhattan. I sat down on a couch and began answering the questions.
Everything went smoothly until I reached the line where it asked if I was ever convicted of a crime. There on the application, was a box I had to check, that said yes or no. I panicked, thinking about how it would look answering "yes." After all I was a convicted felon. A panic came over me and made me think should I answer the question or not? I wondered how many ex-offenders have lied about their past when applying for a job. I knew from the information I had gathered sitting in the parole office where I talked to many former prisoners who told me that as soon as they answered that question truthfully their interviews were terminated. Many employers were very hesitant to hire ex-felons.
My parole officer talked to me about this problem and said most of her parolee's would not be considered on equal status with other job applicants because of their criminal records. She thought it was unfair and said that a way to solve this problem would be to conduct a criminal background only during the final interview process if it is relevant or required for the position. From her experience she saw one of the biggest barriers for individuals reentering society from incarceration is finding employment and one of the main reasons rates of recidivism are so high. A lot of her clients told her that when filling applications they had to check a "yes" or "no" box if they have ever been convicted of a felony and had no opportunity for them to provide an explanation of the crime, the circumstances or date of the conviction, or any rehabilitation that has been completed since being charged. It was a no win situation for them.
I thought about my situation. I was recommended for a job by one of the big partners of the firm. So the firm would know about my past anyway. I checked the box yes and even squeezed in additional information which told of my 15- to-life sentence for a non-violent drug crime. I handed the form to the receptionist and left feeling as though my past would prevent me from ever getting a job. The next day, to my surprise, I got a call from the firm telling me I had been hired on a part-time basis. I was happy beyond belief!
My new book talks about the issues of re-entry and I hope it helps those ex-offenders returning home in the age of reform. We thank President Obama for his help breaking down the barriers that prevent them from becoming productive tax paying citizens.