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Securing employment for ex-offenders, locally

An estimated 25 % of all Californian's have a criminal record, many landing in San Francisco, where rate of unemployment among ex-offenders is disproportionately high.  Even though San Francisco, and other cities, including Berkeley and Oakland, have "Banned-the-box," meaning employers can no longer inquire at the application phase about past criminal convictions, barriers still exist for this particular population.  For instance, many employers still conduct background checks, often using commercial background check companies that may be inaccurate. They can then determine what convictions they feel are relevant to the position.  Another deterrent for businesses is the fact that insurance companies charge more to businesses that employ ex-offenders and forego conducting background checks. 

In an attempt to minimize these barriers, San Francisco Supervisor and Sheriff Elect, Ross Mirkarimi, proposed local legislation to provide an incentive in the form of a tax credit to local business owners for hiring ex-offenders.  Tuesday, Dec. 6, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors  voted down the measure 5 to 6.  "The question is what to do with a large population. . . The unemployment rate is 50% or higher among ex-offenders and the fact is that we spend about $47,500 per year/per inmate in county jail," Mirkarimi explained in his defense of the proposition.  

While ultimately this piece of legislation failed, the reasons for opposition varied.  Some supervisors feared this could trigger a "slippery slope" in terms of where to draw the line for other marginalized populations in need of employment.  Others strongly agreed San Francisco needs to address the growing population of jobless ex-offenders but do not feel this is the most effective or most promising tactic.  The tax-incentive idea was modeled from similar laws in Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore, MD and other states; however, because these projects are pilots, substantial evidence on their effectiveness has not yet been conducted.  Alternative pieces of legislation have not yet been proposed. 
 
This led me to ponder, what would be the best approach to this issue that desperately needs to be addressed?  It appears to me that city ordinances cannot be the only route towards securing more jobs for ex-offenders because legislation alone does not combat the stigma still associated with this population.  I am reminded of the incredible work EPOCA  (Ex-prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement), conducted to encourage fair-hiring practices, an organization I was formally involved with in Worcester, MA.

First, EPOCA organized within the community.  Reaching out to as many local businesses as possible, EPOCA educated them on the benefits of hiring ex-offenders.    Seeing the "faces" behind the records made clear to employers that many individuals re-entering society are more than ready and willing to work hard. Businesses then voluntarily signed an agreement (no tax incentive needed) indicating they would not discriminate against applicants based on their records.  Laying this ground-work first, along with a state-wide coalition, is what led to the support and success of the eventual city and state-wide "ban-the-box" ordinance, as well as large-scale criminal record sealing reform.  

As CJCJ's Executive Director, Dan Macallair stated at the Nov. 30th hearing for the above San Francisco proposal, "the most important piece of ensuring someone's reintegration back into society is employment."  Multiple studies  have demonstrated this, "showing that ex-offender employment reduces recidivism by as much as 50 percent."  In this case however, research is not enough to abolish a deep stigma. Echoing Mirkarimi's statement on Tuesday while addressing the SF Re-entry council, a better public relations effort is crucial because "we are representing a population that is not well-received."  

See this link  for legislative update of nation-wide reforms.


Keywords: criminalization, Emily Luhrs, employment, reentry, San Francisco

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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