Five years ago Clarence Ford was sitting in prison, serving three years for robbery. Today Ford, now 25, is a full-time student at Contra Costa Community College and a part-time researcher. He’s a busy man hoping to transfer to a University of California to study sociology.
“To go to prison at 20, that was quite an experience for me,” he said. “It was a journey.”
When Ford was in prison he heard people talking about wanting to get back to a normal life when they got out. Many people just wanted to return to their families and find jobs, but they were worried about filling out job applications, he said. They feared having to check “the box” that asks about any criminal history.
“That question will always make a person consider, ‘Can I get a job?’” he said. “That’s automatically demoralizing or disheartening.”
Ford went to prison workshops that discussed how to fill out job applications and how to answer the criminal history question.
“They would tell you to say yes, and put ‘will explain in interview,’” he said.
And that’s what Ford did. He can’t remember how many applications he filled out–for UPS, hardware stores and small businesses–in Richmond during his first few months back home in 2011.
“I just remember I was on the computer filling out application after application,” he said. “I didn’t even get a call back or an email.”
Ford felt that what the people in prison had feared was coming true for him.
“That question is a real barrier and discrimination tactic that has to be dealt with,” he said. “It’s hard to be successful when the odds are against you.”
Ford currently does research and community outreach for Safe Return, a Richmond organization that focuses on reintegrating ex-convicts into communities. Safe Return recently helped pass a “ban the box” ordinance in Richmond.
The ordinance requires all city contractors with 10 or more full-time employees to get rid of the questions on job applications that ask if an applicant has ever been convicted of a crime. Furthermore, Richmond’s “ban the box” ordinance prohibits city contractors from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history at any other point during the hiring process unless the job is deemed “sensitive”–for example, jobs where someone works with youth, or confidential information. Also, in cases where the position requires a state or federal-mandated background check, that screening would still be permitted.
Ford said that one clear benefit is that it will help change employers’ mentalities.
“Just being able to share our testimony with different employers or politicians, just kind of changing that perception I think will be very beneficial to the people coming home from incarceration,” he said. “This gives employers the opportunity to actually know the prospective employees before they discriminate against them.”
An estimated one in four adults in California has an arrest or conviction record, according to the National Employment Law Project, an economic policy research organization.
The Richmond Police Department believes that bolstering the employment outlook for ex-convicts in Richmond is crucial.
“Right now, when people come out of prison, if you’re not able to get a job because of a conviction, you’re basically stuck at ‘GO,’” said Captain Mark Gagan, of the Richmond Police Department. “When this population has upward mobility, we feel that recidivism is much [less] likely.”
Safe Return found in 2011 that the unemployment rate for ex-convicts in Richmond was more than four times the unemployment rate for the city’s general population.
In that same year, the Richmond City Council first passed a resolution prohibiting the city from inquiring into a prospective city employee’s criminal history.
This resolution and the latest ordinance expanding “ban the box” to city contractors will not necessarily secure more jobs for people with criminal records, said Richmond Councilman Tom Butt, the sole council member who voted against the ordinance.
Butt said that ensuring city contractors’ compliance with the ordinance would be difficult, unless a company is found to have an application that still includes the question about criminal history.
If a company is found out of compliance, the consequences for violating the ordinance are uncertain, said Butt.
“What happens then? Does the [city] contract get violated?” said Butt. “Do [companies] just edit their application and still not hire [the applicant]? That doesn’t give anyone a job.”
Many city contractors, including companies operating out of the city’s port, are already required to run background checks under federal law, he said. Other city contractors, such as law, architecture and engineering firms, are not likely to be sources for low-level positions, he said.
“I think the expectations of what it’s going to accomplish is way overblown,” said Butt. “Some advocates believe this will open up a whole lot of jobs for a whole lot of previously incarcerated people. They’re going to be disappointed.”
The national Equal Employment Opportunity Commission already requires that employers not discriminate on the basis of criminal backgrounds, he said.
“Discrimination based on past incarceration is [covered] under federal law already,” said Butt.
Even before the city’s “ban the box” resolution in 2011, Butt said, it would be hard to tell if the city was discriminating against people with criminal records.
The city may not have been discriminating prior to the resolution, but for LaVern Vaughn, 42, knowing that the city application no longer had “the box” made all the difference.
Vaughn, who was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for sex trafficking of a child, is a founding member of Safe Return. She now works for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. She did not apply for the job until the city had removed the box on its job application.
“I would have never applied for a city job [before the resolution,]” she said.
When Vaughn got out of prison, determined to change her life, she found that people looked at her differently. Many people would shy away from her after hearing that she had been to prison.
“All we’re asking for is a chance,” she said.
Sukey Lewis contributed to this report. Lewis’ report on the local business response to “ban the box” will run tomorrow.