“Individuals released from jails and prisons are at high risk for being homeless,” said Debra Rowe, acting executive director of Returning Citizens United, at a March 11 hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, chaired by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. “While some return home to open heart and arms, few return home to open doors.”
“Upon release, returning citizens need help reconciling their expectations with those of their family members. And even more, they need a plan for how they can fit back into family life. Without this, many become economic burdens to their family households, creating strained relationships that may already be fragile due to their formal criminal justice history. Family or friends may allow the former offender to temporarily use their address or reside at the address just to facilitate discharge, but soon thereafter they are often urged to find some place to live.
“So we have these individuals while incarcerated telling their parents or their husbands or wives or children or caregivers that, ‘When I come home I’m going to get a job and I’m going to do better.’ They come home, honestly check the box, apply, and can’t even get an interview,” said Rowe.
Many job applicants are asked to check the “box” if they have a criminal record. This simple step can turn a conviction into a life sentence by rendering the returning citizen unable to access the job market. “We know directly the struggles of ex-offenders who would be excellent candidates for many positions but are immediately eliminated from the application process because of the question about the background, ” said Jacqueline Stewart, associate director of Jubilee Jobs.
The “ban the box” movement seeks to prohibit employers from asking about a prospective employee’s criminal record, at least initially. This prevents returning citizens from being discriminated against, at least initially. Legislation passed 11-0 by the D.C. Council in Dec. 2010 removes the “box” from the applications for D.C. government jobs.
The “Human Rights for Ex-Offenders” bill, introduced by former D.C. mayor and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, would go further. It would require “employers (and landlords and schools) to hold off on criminal background checks until a final offer is made,” said Phil Fornaci, director of the DC Prisoners’ Project. “Then they can refuse to hire (or rent or enroll) someone offered a job only if the criminal convictions revealed in the background check are ‘relevant’ to the job (or housing or educational opportunity).”
Rowe said, “It is our hope that the District will finally implement the same ban the box policies that twenty five cities and counties have initiated in their government and expanded as a requirement for thousands of private employers.”
If action is not taken to address this situation we will continue with a de facto “lifetime sentence for anyone with a felony conviction, including those who have served their sentence, paid their debt to society and [been] released back into the community to begin productive lives,” said Stewart.
“The cost to society is tremendous, preventing capable persons of earning a living and supporting their families. The inability to find employment is the single dominant factor in recidivism, so that keeping persons with anything on their record from productive employment invites a return to the prison at huge cost to the community.
“The cost to the individual who has served time, who has repented for wrongdoing and yet [has] never [been] given the opportunity to demonstrate a new and positive commitment, cannot be measured. Banning the box for past arrests and convictions will remove a barrier and it will make possible for many qualified persons to be candidates for available positions and to eventually become valued employees in the Washington, D.C. workforce.”