Bill puts qualification before conviction in job search
URBANA — Have you ever been convicted of a crime, other than a minor traffic violation?
For former offenders, that question, routinely included in most job applications, can be the source of much anxiety as they reintegrate into society and start looking for a job, a key step in keeping them from sliding back into a criminal lifestyle.
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But some employers may automatically toss out any applications in which the candidate has checked the "yes" box.
The dilemma has prompted a nationwide "Ban the Box" movement, and Illinois is one of a handful of states that could soon prevent employers from automatically disqualifying candidates based on prior convictions. In May, the General Assembly passed the "Best Candidate for the Job Act," which allows ex-offenders to be judged on their qualifications for a job before their criminal history is considered, according to Dave Blanchette, Gov. Pat Quinn's spokesman. Quinn intends to sign the bill, he said. It will take effect in 2015.
"I'm all for it," career coach Janice Coleman said of the legislation.
Shifting the focus from people's backgrounds and more toward their skills will help give them a second chance, she said. "And everyone deserves a second chance. ... They did a crime, they paid the fine, they did the time," she said.
The former Danville Area Community College instructor was sent to the New Directions Treatment Center in Danville after she was arrested for possession of cocaine in 2010. There, she organized Second Chance, a 10-week program to help former offenders find jobs. They practiced interviewing, created resumes and drafted "letters of explanation," which outlined the stories behind their criminal backgrounds.
"When they get a job, recidivism goes way down. They really do want to do well, become self-sufficient again and get off the welfare rolls," Coleman said.
Now at Goodwill Industries in Danville, she helps former felons and others who have barriers to finding employment. She also works with employers, informing them about the benefits of hiring an ex-offender — such as tax breaks — and trying to get them to believe they will not hire a "hardcore criminal, but a person who made a mistake."
In related state-level action, Quinn last year issued a "Ban the Box" executive order to ensure that those who have paid their debt to society should not necessarily be barred from employment, Blanchette said.
"Governor Quinn feels that hiring managers should have the opportunity to learn of a candidate's skills and qualifications before making a decision based on their history," Blanchette said. "Ex-offenders should not face a life sentence of no job prospects and no life opportunities just because they have served time in prison."
In Illinois, the recidivism rate is at 47 percent, which is down from recent years, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, which holds several "Summit of Hope" expos a year for ex-offenders. There, they can learn about obtaining identification, applying for health care coverage and job seeking.
"The Department of Corrections does not believe that unemployment is a reason to commit felonies. That's an excuse, and we don't make excuses here. We're also logical. It's proven that employment is the best way to avoid criminal behavior," IDOC's Tom Shaer said.
"We realize it's not easy for ex-offenders to find a job. But we also know you are more likely to go straight when you have a job to go straight with," he said.
'Twice as hard'
For James Winston, who became addicted to heroin after serving in the Vietnam War and who eventually became involved in a variety of criminal acts, it took some time to "go straight."
What happens in many cases is former felons will give up quickly, said the 65-year-old Winston, now a successful barber in Urbana.
"The spirit of perseverance is not there," he said.
Winston spent decades in and out of prison. While serving his sentences, he earned trophies in weightlifting contests and picked up certificates to work in food service and an auto mechanic's shop. But it wasn't until his last stint in prison, in 2005, that he focused on the spiritual and his "inner man." And until then, he hadn't truly understood the character-building power of work.
Winston today often speaks with young men in the community and tells them they need to realize the following.
"I put myself in this position. I've got to work twice as hard. Once they accept that ... somewhere out there someone will not mind giving someone a second chance," he said.
'Taking the chance'
Delaying the inquiry into a candidate's criminal history — and thus being open to giving second chances — is an approach one Urbana business has taken for over a year.
Now a supporter of banning the box, Jacqueline Hannah, general manger of Common Ground Food Co-op, said she didn't come to that decision right away. When Hannah was first approached by supporters of the movement, she hesitated. It wasn't long after a disgruntled employee shot and killed a store manager at a Vermont co-op and Hannah was acutely aware of her responsibility to protect people from those who might do them harm.
The Brattleboro, Vt., co-op shooting "was fresh in my mind," Hannah said. "I told them, 'I really want to do the right thing. I am also so aware of protecting employees. I'm not sure if the two can go together.' "
She's since learned that employers continue to have a right to information about a candidate's background and it can still be a consideration in the hiring decision.
"You just don't do it from Day 1, but when you decide if he or she is the right person for the company," she said.
The co-op has gone from fewer than 10 employees in 2007 to about 100 now. And they're planning to open a second store in Champaign.
As at other businesses, candidates first fill out a job application. But what's different at Common Ground is the first page does not ask for a name or a person's criminal background. The focus is on job experience.
"It's about trying to clear away our natural human biases," Hannah said.
Once someone is offered an interview and he or she goes through the process, the co-op makes a conditional employment offer.
"They have had an opportunity to meet us, to impress us, to talk about who they are," she said.
The offer is contingent on the co-op conducting a background check. If the person has a criminal background, it is at this point in the process the candidate can respond in writing to the co-op's question, "What have you done to rehabilitate yourself since that time?"
The candidate also can choose to meet the human resources manager and have a "one-on-one, in-person experience to discuss their history," Hannah said.
If the co-op finds something on the record that was not disclosed, the candidate is automatically not hired — "We have to have honesty," she said.
If the candidate doesn't agree to the background check, they also part ways.
Hannah must approve the hiring of any applicants with criminal records. There are a lot of judgment calls.
In one scenario, she said, a candidate may have a history of stealing from an employer, but it was seven years ago and the person has since earned degrees and bettered himself and is willing to talk about the past and what he's done to improve his life.
In another scenario, someone was convicted six months ago for an assault at work but is not willing to discuss it.
Hannah views the new process as a respectful one.
"They are grateful for the opportunity, that we're treating them like human beings and that we're taking the chance on them," she said.
'Tell the truth'
Box or no box, Winston said the key for ex-offenders is to "get out and get busy."
Fill out those applications, knowing that many will be crumpled up and tossed in the trash, he said. Ex-offenders need to realize they will have to work twice as hard as others looking for jobs these days.
When he returned from prison in 2007, he first took a job in food service. The man who hired him said, "I don't care about your past. I care about your future."
With his future in mind, he obtained his barber's license. He started cutting hair at a friend's shop in the morning and in the afternoon and evenings he cut hair in his house. Eventually, he was able to rent space on Washington Street in Urbana and then expand to a larger space in Sunnycrest Mall off Philo Road. Winston keeps a stack of free Bibles on a counter and has plenty of verses memorized, passages including "for whatever one sows, that will he also reap."
"Don't get concerned about boxes," he said. "Fill it out, tell the truth."
Illinois House Bill 570 — better known as the Best Candidate for the Job Act — passed in both houses in May and was sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, who intends to the sign the bill. Come Jan. 1, 2015, here's how employers will be required to treat all job applicants:
Inquire into or require disclosure of a job applicant's criminal record or criminal history before the candidate has been notified that the candidate has been selected for a job interview or has been offered a conditional offer of employment.
Consider the nature and gravity of a candidate's conviction record, the time elapsed since the conviction and whether the conviction has a direct bearing on the candidate's fitness before excluding a candidate.
From prison to ...
The popular areas prisoners moved after being released in fiscal year 2013 — by zip code — according to estimates kept by the Illinois Department of Corrections:
Zip City Total
61832 (Danville) 147
61820 (Champaign) 98
61821 (Champaign) 98
61834 (Danville) 84
61801 (Urbana) 78
61866 (Rantoul) 64
61802 (Urbana) 62
Notes: In addition to prison discharges, there are 529 active parolees in Champaign County and 276 in Vermilion County, according to IDOC.
Unlike with parolees, IDOC is not required by law to keep tabs of prisoners discharged outright and bases statistics on last known address.