It’s been said America is the land of second chances. But for people with a criminal history, a second chance can be impossible to come by.
After paying their debt to society, these individuals face insurmountable barriers to gainful employment upon re-entry. Disclosing one’s criminal history on a job application often immediately eliminates them from the applicant pool, regardless of qualifications.
Take Curtis, a convicted felon who served time in the 1980s. Upon release, he quickly discovered no one would hire him. Rejection after rejection left him feeling hopeless, unworthy of a shot at the American Dream. When he did finally land a job, it was menial work at wages that kept his family below the poverty level. Two decades after leaving prison, Curtis is still struggling to find living-wage employment. On his own initiative, he got his wildland firefighting certification, but again no one would hire him because of his past. He’s currently volunteering through a fire academy in the hope it leads to better employment prospects as he proves himself.
Stories like Curtis’ are why we’re supporting legislation in the state House and Senate this year (HB 1298 and SB 5312) to give people a fair chance at getting their lives back on track. It would prohibit most employers from asking applicants about their criminal history on job applications or in initial employment screenings. There would be exceptions for certain kinds of jobs, including those involving access to children or vulnerable adults, and those with law enforcement agencies.
To be clear, these proposals don’t prevent employers from performing background checks on job applicants or asking questions about criminal records. And they don’t compel employers to hire anyone. They simply provide the chance for someone to make the first cut in the hiring process based on his or her skills and talents. And it’s an opportunity to explain one’s story in person during the interview process, including the circumstances of a past arrest or conviction. This gives a more complete picture than simply checking a box on an application.
Layne Pavey is a mental health clinician in Spokane who works with people like Curtis. She knows checking a box doesn’t tell the full story, because she herself is a convicted felon. A bad decision derailed her life and sent her to prison. Her then-boyfriend was dealing drugs to pay off debts, and although Layne left him, she was eventually arrested as a conspirator.
Despite having a college degree and six years of sales experience, Layne found when she got out of prison she couldn’t even get hired at a fast food restaurant. Over and over she heard, “We don’t hire people like you here.” To improve her prospects, Layne got a master’s degree, and now helps people turn their lives around as she was able to do. It’s an ongoing struggle.
She says, “I served 20 months in prison, but I’m actually serving life.”
Supporters of fair-chance legislation say it’s good for families and communities for four specific reasons.
One, it promotes fairness, giving those with criminal histories the chance to contribute positively to society again.
Two, it increases public safety, because it reduces recidivism if people can find jobs to support themselves.
Three, it saves taxpayer money, because even cutting recidivism by a small percentage saves millions of dollars.
And four, it decreases expenditures for the state through reduced reliance on public benefits, while increasing revenue through greater overall employment.
We believe there’s a fifth reason as well. The costs of recidivism go far beyond the dollars required to keep someone incarcerated. There’s also the damage done to families who lose a breadwinner and children who are raised without a parent at home. Too often, these children end up in the criminal justice system themselves, continuing the cycle for another generation.
Already, 24 states and 150 cities and counties have adopted fair chance policies. Spokane is in the process of doing so. Together, these jurisdictions encompass 206 million people, or nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population. But that still leaves a lot of people trying to get that second chance.
Between 94 and 96 percent of individuals who enter Washington’s state prisons eventually re-enter society. They should return to their communities better people than they went in. This legislation helps make that possible.
We hope Washington becomes the next state to embrace this policy so that, as someone recently testified in support of the House bill, people have the opportunity to be who they are now, not who they once were.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner represents the 6th Legislative District. Rep. Marcus Riccelli represents the 3rd Legislative District.