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Paid their debt to society

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DeLon Dale has more than 20 years of warehouse experience, but is unable to get a job because he is an ex-offender. He served one year for a drug conviction and was released five months ago.

“I know how to do everything in here, but when I go on interviews, they say I qualify for the jobs, but my criminal background wasn’t old enough. I don’t think that’s fair,” said Dale.

Upon release, he was able to get a job at RecycleForce, an Indianapolis facility that disposes of electronic waste, and does so using ex-offender labor. Dale completed RecycleForce’s four-month program but received an extension because of his experience. He’s grateful for a job but is looking for permanent employment.

Dale’s story is familiar among ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society, but are unable to gain employment.

“There was a study done that showed 70 percent of employers had some type of prohibition against hiring someone with a criminal background. They won’t even consider you,” said Gregg Keesling, president of RecycleForce.

He said in the past, Indiana ex-offenders had to wait until they were successfully out of the prison system for 10 years. As of last year, that waiting period was lowered to five years. Keesling is grateful for some legislative advances, but asks what are ex-offenders to do in five years especially for those who have pricey conviction fees and families.

He also believes that the long waiting period may contribute to recidivism rates.

“Once you’re a felon, people assume you’re going to keep committing crimes and that’s just wrong. You’re passing up hard workers,” said Keesling.

The crackdown

Calvin Houston, director of job development at RecycleForce, which helps program-goers obtain unsubsidized employment, believes the main factor that prevents ex-offenders from getting employment is a criminal background check.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a habitual traffic violator or a murderer. There’s no way (ex-offenders) can explain their situation,” said Houston.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) knows how much of a problem background checks can be. They believe now more than ever, criminal background checks will have a disparate impact on minorities.

Kenneth Colburn, professor of sociology and criminology for Butler University agrees. People can simply look at the disproportionate amount of Blacks in the criminal justice department. At any given time, they are released from prison without much opportunity.

“There’s probably racism at work here too. There’s a social scientist that did a study. She found that among white ex-offender job applicants, they got called back at a much higher rate than even Blacks without a criminal record,” said Colburn.

To combat some of the discrimination, the EEOC says it is taking a harder stand and wants to see that employers have truly justified why they are using criminal background checks as part of their application process.

“Since the 1980s, we advise employers that these records should be looked at on an individual basis and should be looked at carefully to make sure employment opportunities are not denied simply based on criminal background checks,” said Phyllis Tucker-Wells, program manager for public relations, education, outreach, and training for the EEOC’s Indianapolis district office.

For example, a convicted sex offender should understand they won’t get hired at a day care, but they should be able to get hired as a custodian for an office building.

People should understand that the EEOC doesn’t have the authority to outlaw all uses of arrest and conviction records. They simply advise employers about how their actions affect the public and the consequences of those that are found to discriminate against certain groups of people.

If an ex-offender believes or has proof they have been refused a job based on a criminal background check, they can submit a complaint to the EEOC. If the complaint has merit, they will investigate the company.

Businesses who are found to have discriminatory practices must meet with the EEOC and attorneys to discuss a resolution. For those who have discriminatory practices, but do not agree to reconciliation can face a lawsuit.

Indiana employers have the right to hire or deny an ex-offender regardless of their time out of prison, however, Kenneth Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana said there is no Indiana law that prevents an employer from denying someone a job because they are an ex-offender. Meaning, whether a person has been released from prison for a few days or for 40 years, an employer doesn’t have to hire them.

“An employer can do anything they want to, but the key is if they get caught discriminating against people,” asserted Tucker-Wells. “We don’t try to tell employers how to operate their businesses but if (a plaintiff) has a charge, we’re going to go after them.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

To help reduce employers pitching ex-offenders’ applications and to circumvent additional issues, City-County Council member Vop Osili is working at the local level to get “Ban the Box” passed in Indianapolis.

The council has established a nine-month commission to study recidivism in Marion County and to look at best practices across the country on successful reentry. “Ban the Box” has been used in a number of cities across the U.S. including Philadelphia.

“Right now, that one box on job applications can be the decider before one is even given an opportunity. This is a great tool to provide a more level playing field,” said Osili.

Keesling believes that changing state law is a powerful first step to getting ex-offenders to work.

“Then you’d have to make sure businesses follow suit and talk to insurance companies who want to raise rates for businesses who hire ex-offenders. The law is putting too many people out of work.”

Professor Colburn said there are many answers to the problem, but believes this issue must be tackled on the front end – providing job opportunities to underserved communities before they enter the prison system. He also charges authorities to look at unnecessarily lengthy sentences and create better re-entry programs.

“I wish somebody would look at it from a different perspective and see what a man or woman is made of before they judge them by what they’ve done in the past,” said Dale.

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