Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part Four

This is the conclusion of the four-part article on men with prison terms who have difficulty getting work after they are released.

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Jeffrey Menteer, who is 26 and lives in northwestern Pennsylvania, has applied for 15 jobs since June, when he completed a six-month prison term for a gun possession charge. A company that makes screen doors told him it might hire him after he gets off parole in October. Other than that he has found nothing. He said his criminal record was making it hard to find work.

“Between that and my race, black living in a white town, it’s tough,” he said.

He worked steadily as a logger for about five years before he was arrested. He made about $800 a week except in the spring, the off-season for the tree-cutting business. Now he lives with his parents, and the only money he makes is from occasional work shoveling snow.

“I don’t really blame them, but I wish they’d be a little more open-minded,” he said of local employers. “People do change.”

These concerns, and a wave of stories like Mr. Menteer’s, have catalyzed efforts to legislate protections.

The first “fair chance” law was passed by Hawaii in 1998. The law prohibits most private employers from inquiring about criminal history until after making a conditional job offer. Then the offer can be revoked only if the offense is relevant.

In just the last few years, the list of jurisdictions with similar laws has expanded rapidly, although the details vary: Some apply only to public sector jobs, others allow background checks at earlier stages in the hiring process, and they all include long lists of exemptions.

Still, the trend is clear enough that several of the nation’s largest employers, including Walmart, Home Depot and Target, have also stopped asking about criminal records at the beginning of the job application process.

Breaking the Cycle

The current debate, however, is largely about mulligans: giving people a second chance after a fairly isolated mistake. It does not address the underlying cycles of crime and incarceration that plague many men in lower-income communities.

Gregory Payne, 52, worked for a company that made insurance manuals in Santa Monica, Calif., after graduating from high school. He said he lost the job when he needed care for a daughter who was ill.

“I had two kids and an apartment, and the only fast money I could see was dealing drugs,” he said. He was caught, went to prison, got out, said he couldn’t find work and returned to dealing. He served 16 months, then three years, then another three years and a final four years on top of that.

“You keep doing the things that get you the money because you can’t get other jobs,” he said.

About seven years ago, he left his life in Venice, on the PacificCoast, and moved with a newborn son to California City, about 100 miles inland. He said he hadn’t used or sold drugs since moving, but employers don’t seem any more interested.

“Your record hurts you, man,” he said. “In certain cases, I understand. They got a right to say no if you’re stealing and robbing people. I wouldn’t hire you myself. But people who went up for drugs?”

Last year, California passed a “ban the box” law but, at least for Mr. Payne, it came too late. He qualified for federal disability benefits two years ago and said he had no immediate plans to seek work.

Mr. Mirsky is more hopeful that New Jersey’s new law will help him find work.He says he hopes that he has hit bottom. In November a friend put him in touch with an agency that places workers in short-term jobs.

He said that most of the other men also have criminal records. He worked five days at a brewery, a half-day at a coffee plant and a few weeks at the dairy. When that job ended, the company liked him enough to offer him a second temporary job.

But on the January morning he was scheduledto start, just minutes before he planned to leave the house, the police arrested him again on a new charge of not paying child support.

This time he went quietly, and the judge let him go. And the dairy, after a few phone calls, said he could start the next day. It felt, Mr. Mirsky said, like the first lucky break he’d had in more than four years.

This concludes the article on ex-prisoners.

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