Issac Brown-Meza wouldn’t mind job interviews if it weren’t for that kick-in-the-gut feeling when they ask. And they always ask.
“I feel like I’m in the hot seat,” he says. “I feel like any moment, no matter how I present myself, that it’s all going to boil down to that one answer: Yes or no. They want to know, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’ I can’t lie. I say yes.”
The 34-year-old San Jose native will wrap up probation on old drug charges this week. He’ll continue taking classes at San Jose City College to become a certified drug counselor. He’ll go to one 12-step meeting a day—two if he skips the day prior. He has to stay on track. His wife and two daughters will move back from Texas any day now to start over as a family.
“It’s all falling into place,” Brown-Meza says, bringing his hands together as in prayer. “One day at a time. One blessing at a time.”
But Brown-Meza’s record—a rap sheet dating back to middle school—marks him for life. He’s lucky if he can even land an in-person job interview, thanks to that box on most job applications that asks if there’s felony on his record. Normally, he checks the affirmative and jots down a note about how he’d like to explain it in person.
“At least then, I feel, I have a better shot,” he says. “But I know most of the time they see my answer and toss it out. If they do invite me to interview, I have some hope, but I know that sometimes, yeah, they’ve already made their judgments.”
Starting next summer, formerly convicted job-seekers like Brown-Meza stand a slightly improved chance of finding work. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill two years in the making into law. AB 218 would nix the criminal background disclosure box from initial employment applications for a wide range of public sector jobs. The “Ban the Box” bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), doesn’t mean government agencies can’t vet new hires, though.
“It doesn’t get rid of background checks,” says Michelle Rodriguez, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It just delays them until employers determine whether or not a person is qualified for a job.”
California joins nine states and more than 50 cities and counties in passing ban-the-box legislation, a growing movement to combat the illegal yet commonplace practice of rejecting applicants solely because of a criminal record. In October, Target, the second-largest retailer in the country, announced it would “ban the box” on initial job applications, too.
Life After Release
Carlos Rose got slapped with assault charges and spent a month in jail when he was 18. He pleaded guilty to get out as quick as possible. He was too naive, he says, to realize that he could have fought charges down to misdemeanors.”That stuck with me all this time,” says the San Jose resident, now 36 years old. “I’ve been hired before to a good job, but get canned as soon as the background check clears. I didn’t know how it would affect my whole life.”
He relied on a friend to hook him up with his current bartending job.
“I can find work, that hasn’t been a problem for me,” he says. “But the good jobs—that’s the only thing that worries me. Career-type jobs, they won’t even consider me. Policy is policy.”
Today, one in four Americans has a conviction or arrest on their record, according to a NELP study titled “65 Million Need Not Apply.”
With statewide prison reform in full swing, even more people with felonies and other non-violent offenses are getting released. Santa Clara County estimates freeing 77 inmates a month under California’s prison realignment. This comes after the state has already slashed the number of inmates by 46,000 since 2006.
In August, the U.S. Supreme Court granted early release to another 10,000 inmates in California to ease prison overcrowding. Judges held up a Dec. 31 deadline to trim the headcount by 8 percent to 110,000, saying that inmate density as it stands amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. California’s prison system in 2012 saw a suicide rate of 24 inmates per 100,000, or 50 percent higher than the national average.
With a criminal justice system that touches so much of the population, communities have to adjust to accommodate those who have served time and paid their dues, says Jesse Stout, a policy director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “We want to extend this to the private sector and to housing,” he says.
Local agencies are bracing for the change. That doesn’t necessarily mean they plan to hire more people with criminal records, just that these people might make it farther along in the interview process. In San Jose, the city requires background checks on all new hires anyway, says city communications director David Vossbrink. Santa Clara County already banned the box last year, removing the question until the agency tentatively selects a candidate.
Critics argue that ban-the-box legislation restricts employers from properly vetting job candidates. Conservative think tank Judicial Watch calls the legislation senseless by taking away a time-saving tool for employers to screen prospective hires.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), however, maintains that it’s discriminatory to deny employment based on arrest records. Only after determining a person’s fit for the job should a company or agency rule in a conviction record—unless that record applies directly to the type of work, like embezzlement or theft from a retailer. Time since the last conviction, as well as the person’s rehabilitation efforts, should also be considered, the commission says.
The EEOC has used federal money to sue private companies on charges of racist criminal-background screening practices. In 2012, PepsiCo shelled out $3.13 million to settle EEOC charges that it improperly used criminal checks to screen out minorities. In some cases, it discounted applicants who were arrested but never convicted.
No one’s pushing to eliminate criminal checks altogether, Rodriguez says. Under EEOC guidelines, ex-cons don’t get special civil rights protections. But the commission will sue if it sees criminal checks disproportionately blocking out ethnic or racial groups. “We just urge employers to consider the nature of the crime, how it relates to the job and how long ago the person was convicted,” Rodriguez says. “People need a chance to prove themselves, especially if they’ve made this tremendous turnaround in their life. But you have to get past the initial records to see it.”
Victoria Kirschner, 51, has been clean and sober for 11 years. She makes ends meet by driving party buses and limousines—decent work but with long hours and no benefits. However, she was grateful for this opportunity to work, before her record related to her past drug addiction was expunged. “People who meet me now don’t know about my past mistakes because the past represents a different person,” says Kirschner. “At my court hearing, even the DA complimented me now, telling me that I was a stellar example of someone who has their life on track and is giving back.” Kirschner says word-of-mouth referrals were the only way for her to overcome questions about her past run-ins with the law. With Ban the Box, that is no longer an issue: employers will see her as she has been for the last 11 years.
But on Tuesday, she found that at least a few of her past convictions were dropped by the DMV.
“I want to stay in the transportation industry, so that’s a huge help,” Kirschner says. “It felt so good. I have more confidence to try.”