Boxed In

New state job application laws could help ex-offenders, but they’re part of a larger puzzle

click to enlarge Bryan Dell’s journey to move past his criminal record started at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Now he’s pursuing a master’s in social work at Northern Kentucky University.
Bryan Dell’s journey to move past his criminal record started at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Now he’s pursuing a master’s in social work at Northern Kentucky University.

On June 1, the state of Ohio stopped asking job seekers on applications whether they have been convicted of a crime, and a proposed measure would remove questions about criminal history from all public job applications across the state.

Both are steps in the right direction, ex-offenders and advocates say, but more could be done to help with the long process those with criminal records face as they seek to be considered for their merits, not their histories.

Bryan Dell knows that struggle well. These days, he works for Talbert House and attends school at Northern Kentucky University, where he’s getting a master’s degree in social work. But in the 1990s, Dell was on a much rougher road.

Growing up poor in Northside, he was a promising student and athlete. But Dell experienced a series of setbacks, and after graduating high school, he lived in a haze of addiction, he says. By 1987 he was serving nearly a year in prison for drug trafficking.

The 55-year-old acknowledges that he has made mistakes. But after his father’s death in 2007, Dell got clean and has been pushing himself ever since. He started at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in 2010, eventually transferring to Northern Kentucky University to get his bachelor’s.

He’s faced a lot of obstacles that have made that path harder than it needs to be, he says, including employers refusing to hire him because of his past.

“I’d get a job, work it for a week and a half, and they’d say, ‘We can’t let you come back, because your background came back,’ ” Dell says of his struggle to find employment after he got clean. “Or I’d work a temp to permanent job, and they’d let me go after 90 days because of my background. But I was good enough for those 90 days.”

Dell’s goal after he gets his master’s in social work is to become an addiction counselor. If he applies for work at a public agency, a so-called “ban the box” law the state legislature is mulling could help him compete for jobs.

Starting this month, Ohio is one of 17 states that doesn’t ask for criminal history on a job application, though many civil services jobs still require background checks later in the process. The Ohio General Assembly is considering going even further with House Bill 56, which would prohibit all public employers, not just the state itself, from asking about criminal history on applications. That could help some Ohio residents with felony and misdemeanor records as they push toward gainful employment and a more successful life.

Advocates say making it easier to get a job after prison isn’t just good for ex-offenders but also for society as a whole. Data from the federal government’s National Institute of Justice and other researchers shows recidivism rates are much lower for employed former prisoners.

But Ohio’s “ban the box” law is just one part of a much larger puzzle facing people re-entering life after prison, experts say. There are a number of programs that work to help ex-offenders, including the Hamilton County Office of Reentry, which helps those leaving prison connect with employment, housing, social and civic connections, sobriety programs and other needs. But big hurdles remain.

For Dr. Ricardo Smith, a professor at Cincinnati State University, “banning the box” is a good idea, but progress won’t really come until much larger steps are taken. Smith has studied ex-offender reentry for years and has done in-depth interviews with a number of people making transitions into post-prison life. He says getting private employers to look beyond criminal history is vital.

There are some government incentives for employers to hire ex-offenders, though Smith says sometimes those employers don’t hire them permanently. Many times, they’re referred to temp agencies or other low-wage work, he says.

“If you’re going to give employers incentives to hire ex-offenders,” he says, “you should give them the chance to make a real change.”

There are signs criminal history is becoming less of an issue for employers, but it’s still a big barrier for many ex-offenders. Fifty-three percent of employers say they ask about criminal history on applications, according to a national survey done by Ohio company EmployeeScreenIQ. That’s lower than the 66 percent who put the question on applications last year.

But that doesn’t mean ex-offenders are out of the water once they land an interview. Three quarters of employers who responded to the survey said they ask about criminal history later in the hiring process. Ninety percent of employers said they wouldn’t consider someone with major felonies in their past.

Nearly 2 million Ohio residents, or one in six of the state’s population, have a felony or misdemeanor record. Nationally, as many as 65 million people may not qualify for many jobs because of their criminal record, according to research by the National Employment Law Project. Those include jobs at large corporations like Domino’s Pizza, Aramark, Bank of America and others. A study by the federal government’s National Institute for Justice found that between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed for a year after leaving prison.

Smith says there’s a deeper issue at work in the struggles of many ex-offenders he has worked with: a justice system that incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates.

Ohio jails black citizens at five times the rate it jails whites, according to census data, despite the fact that 83 percent of the state’s population is white. Many of those prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. There is also evidence that more blacks are wrongfully convicted: 31 of the 40 people exonerated for wrongful felony convictions in Ohio since 1989 have been black, according to state data.

Data also suggests that the penalty for a criminal record is especially high for people of color. Another National Institute for Justice study found that black job seekers with criminal records were passed over for jobs due to their histories at twice the rate as white job seekers with similar records.

“Even though you’re out now, it’s like, ‘Once a criminal, always a criminal,’ Smith says of the current job landscape for ex-offenders. “It’s a label.”

Smith and others see “ban the box” laws as the first step toward removing that label. The Ohio House of Representatives is currently mulling House Bill 56 and may vote on it soon. The bill would still need to pass the Senate and get the governor’s signature before questions about criminal history are removed from all public-sector job applications in the state. ©

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