On the first page of the application to work for the city of Richmond, question 14 stands out in capital letters: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
By the end of the month, that question will be gone.
The change is the first step in a campaign to “ban the box” in Richmond – the box in question being the one that people with a criminal record must check when they apply for jobs and housing, and benefits from food stamps to student loans.
Advocates argue that the ubiquitous question about criminal history is an unfair – and often insurmountable — barrier for people returning to their communities after serving time in prison, ultimately adding a sentence to the one already served, increasing the chance of recidivism and placing a burden on families, communities and law enforcement.
“A person with a job is less likely to reoffend,” said Jeff Rutland, an organizer with the Safe Return project, a group of Richmond advocates, all of whom have served prison time themselves. Safe Return was launched in 2010 by the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety, Pacific Institute and CCISCO, which hired ex-offenders to survey those returning from prison and draw up policy proposals.
Rutland said he had trouble finding full-time work when he was released last year, after serving seven years for robbery without the use of a weapon. But he now works as a project manager at the community agriculture organization, Urban Tilth, in addition to his work at Safe Return.
“When you get out, we should have the presumption of rehabilitation,” Rutland said. “Make the playing field even for everybody. Yes, I’ve been to prison. What does that have to do with me working for the Parks Department? What does it have to do with me cutting the grass at Nicholl Park?”
Safe Return has worked with Councilmember Jovanka Beckles to request the change in the city’s job application. The change does not require a vote by the City Council, and Beckles and Richmond Human Resources Director Leslie Knight said they expect the question on criminal history to be removed by the end of October.
“In terms of recidivism, one of the factors that determines whether or not a person recommits a crime is whether they have the opportunity to turn their lives around,” Beckles said. “We can start with what the city itself can do.”
A 2009 report from Pacific Institute found that Richmond’s top 10 employers all asked about prior convictions on their job applications, including the city, Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, and Macy’s.
“I think that everybody deserves a second chance,” Beckles said. “If we’re not willing to give people a second chance, we have to deal with the consequences of that, which is that they’re going to do what they feel they have to do.”
Those returning home face brutally long odds in their efforts to knit together a normal life: nearly 50 percent will return to prison within one year, and nearly 70 percent will return to prison within three years, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A Safe Return survey of 101 parolees and probationers in Richmond, all of whom had been released from jail or prison within the past 18 months, found that 78 percent were unemployed. More than 70 percent were essentially homeless, staying in shelters, halfway houses, or with friends or family.
Safe Return estimates that 2,000 people in Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo are currently on probation or parole. Advocates have no solid estimate of the number of Richmond residents with convictions on their record who would have to answer “yes” to question 14, especially since there is no time limit on the question – it asks about any convictions, whether last year or 30 years ago. A 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project estimated that 25 percent of Californians have a criminal record, if all arrests and convictions are included.
Impact of Realignment
The movement to ban the box has taken on additional urgency this fall, as a major shift in the California prison system takes effect. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prisoner population, citing inhuman conditions in the state’s overcrowded jails. California has responded by shifting responsibility for many inmates to the counties. In the realignment, Contra Costa County will take on responsibility for about 215 additional parolees in the next year. Safe Return and other advocates hope this shift will open up an opportunity to change the way ex-offenders are handled.
“The great majority of people coming home from incarceration will now be under the county’s supervision rather than a good number of them being on parole,” said Eli Moore, a program co-director at the Pacific Institute who helped launch Safe Return. “That’s increased responsibility, but also means additional funding and additional freedom to design a system that really matches the needs of communities in Contra Costa County.”
And, Moore added, there’s incentive to design a better system, since reducing recidivism will reduce spending at the county level.
Rutland said he believes the realignment will hit Richmond harder than the rest of Contra Costa County. Richmond, Antioch and Concord have the highest concentrations of parolees and probationers in the county, according to 2010 numbers compiled in the Contra Costa County Strategic Reentry Plan. “This is serious now — it’s October 1,” Rutland said. “We need to be in a position to help these people.”
National and Local Campaign
The “ban the box” effort is part of a national campaign. At least 35 cities and counties, and six states, have adopted similar policies, removing the question from their job applications — including Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Alameda County, and the state of California — according to All of Us or None, an advocacy group made up of ex-offenders, which started the campaign in the Bay Area in the early 2000s.
Contra Costa County’s own Reentry Strategic Plan, completed in March, recommends removing criminal history from most county job applications. But county supervisors balked at the “ban the box” provision when they voted to adopt the plan, opting instead to revisit it later. The county’s application asks job seekers to list all convictions, including traffic violations with a penalty above $500.
Last year, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) convened a group to develop a reentry strategy for Richmond. The Safe Return project launched around the same time. And in July, advocates began monthly meetings to bring together everyone from the county probation office and Richmond police to homeless shelters and health clinics, ex-offenders and, in some cases, their victims. The goal is to transform the way ex-offenders are reintegrated into the city.
What it means to “ban the box”
In Richmond, as in most places, the change is one of process, not policy, Human Resources Director Knight said. Those jobs that currently require a background check will still require it. The new system will simply change when in the application process the question is asked – both on applications and in interviews. That alone can make a big difference, say advocates and city officials.
“It acts as a barrier to someone who might be a perfectly good candidate,” Knight said.
Rutland agreed; the mere presence of the box is a deterrent, he said. “Me, personally, I would never have thought to apply to the city.”
“Ban the box” policies vary from agency to agency. Safe Return would like Richmond to follow the example of Boston: often, background checks are not conducted until after an applicant has already been given a conditional job offer. That means that candidates know if their criminal record is the reason they are rejected – and can appeal the decision. Berkeley and San Francisco have similar policies.
In Richmond, the city will simply ask the question later. Currently the city asks everyone, at the very start of the process. But many city jobs do not require a criminal background check, and a criminal record does not disqualify applicants.
So the question will be removed from the main application. Applicants for those jobs which, by law, require a background check – a category that includes all jobs in the police and fire departments, and many in the recreation department, from lifeguard to groundskeeper –gardener to weed abatement inspector — will be asked to fill out a supplemental application. That form will ask about prior convictions and inform applicants that there will be a background check.
The change, Knight hopes, will make it clear to applicants when their criminal record is and is not relevant. But even after the change, applicants can still be rejected if the city finds out they have a job-related conviction.
“Our intention is not to make people who have a criminal history believe that they can never get a job,” Knight said. “If it’s job-related, that will bar you from getting the job. But otherwise, you should have the same opportunity as everyone else.” Knight supports the change; she noted that the Human Resources Department had already been considering it when she was approached by Beckles and Safe Return.
For Safe Return, the effort is just the first phase of an agenda to extend the policy to the city’s vendor and contractors, and then to convince private businesses to get on board.
Eventually, the Safe Return team would like to see ex-offenders made into a protected class – treated on forms the same way as disability, age, and gender. All of Us or None, the advocacy group, is currently pushing for this change in San Francisco.
“That’s not just public housing [and employment], that’s everything,” said Safe Return organizer Tamisha Walker. “That’s utopia.”