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A Call to Let Felons Start Fresh

San Francisco supervisors urge deletion of the question about prior felonies from public job applications.

October 12, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Elected leaders here Tuesday took a step unusual for politicians: They sided with felons.

With no debate, supervisors unanimously urged the city and county to delete the question about prior convictions from public employment applications.

The resolution is not binding. And it does not prevent employers from conducting criminal background checks or asking about prior felonies during job interviews.

"It's very important, because it gives you an opportunity to sell yourself to the employer," Robert Bowden, 42, an ex-convict who has been out of prison for seven years, said after the vote. "It gives you another option other than going back to what you did.... If they want us to be productive members of society, they've got to let us back into society."

In introducing the measure two weeks ago, Supervisor Tom Ammiano stressed that it would broaden the city's pool of qualified applicants while reinvesting in ex-convicts who are working to rehabilitate themselves.

The resolution prompted more than 160 letters from members of a San Francisco political action committee concerned that potential changes would hamstring city hiring managers and inappropriately allow certain classes of felons into sensitive positions.

Others nationwide watched with interest: With the vote, San Francisco became the first municipality in the state -- and possibly the country -- to grapple with what advocates say is employment discrimination against a swelling population of ex-prisoners.

Increasing security concerns since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have led to a sharp rise in criminal background checks by employers: Eighty percent conducted them in 2003, up from 51% in 1996, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. The trend has further weeded former offenders from the workplace and prompted some employers to fire otherwise stable workers who lied about criminal pasts, advocates say.

"If they can get their foot in the door so that at least they can be considered ... I think that's extremely important," said former Clinton administration pardon attorney Margaret Colgate Love, who recently completed a study for the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project of state laws that affect felons after their release.

The vote by the supervisors came the same day that San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris unveiled a "reentry" program to provide job training, education and other guidance to ex-offenders in an attempt to reduce steep recidivism rates among California parolees.

Dozens of ex-felons packed the supervisors' chambers late last month to support the employment application measure. Activists hope the San Francisco resolution will become a blueprint for others across the state. One spoke of fruitlessly seeking rental housing when his only identification was a prison ID.

Linda Walker, 47, a Contra Costa County employee who works securing child support payments, talked of suffering eternally for crimes she had long ago done the time for. Although the former heroin addict with a petty theft conviction managed to find a sympathetic manager and land a good job, she said she feared having to reveal her felon status each time she sought advancement.

"There have been many times I didn't apply for a position because of that box," she told supervisors when the measure was introduced. "There are so many of us who do not seek housing, jobs, loans and the opportunity to advance because we don't want to answer that question -- because we've already paid."

Driving the measure is a Bay Area-based group of ex-convicts called All of Us or None. Leader Dorsey Nunn has urged public officials to view the application checkbox issue as one hurdle in a broader civil rights movement for the formerly incarcerated.

The scene was more subdued Tuesday as two members of the group showed up to watch their measure succeed. Bowden, convicted of drug dealing, now works security for St. Anthony's Foundation. He believes he secured the job only because the application did not inquire about his felony status and he could explain his past in person. He never received a call back after checking the felon box on 40 other applications, he said.

The debate comes as the public policy problem of a vast felon underclass is capturing attention nationwide. There are an estimated 12 million people in the U.S. with felony convictions -- about 8% of the working-age population, and more than 600,000 offenders are being released from prisons yearly, said Devah Pager, a Princeton University sociologist who researches employment discrimination against felons.

Pager hired groups of African American and white young men with identical resumes and experience to pose as job applicants. Some were told to say they had a drug felony. Her study found that checking the felony box on applications reduced the white applicants' chance of an interview by 50% and the black applicants' by two-thirds.

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