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Ex-Prisoners and Jobs

Marc La Cloche spent his time in prison training to be a barber, ready to apply his newfound skills upon his release in 2000. But the Bronx native found himself facing a surreal situation when he applied for a barber’s license: Because of his felony conviction, his application was denied. Owing to state law, La Cloche could only practice his trade -- taught him by the state’s Department of Corrections -- if he remained behind bars.

An administrative law judge made an exception to the law and granted him a barber’s license, but New York State appealed the decision, and the license was revoked. La Cloche died last November, never having obtained his license.

In New York as in other states, many jobs in today’s workforce -- from physical therapists and real estate brokers to plumbers and sanitation workers -- are closed to anyone with a prison record. Even employers willing to hire an ex-offender (perhaps with the benefit of a federal tax credit) are often prohibited from doing so under state law.

Critics see these restrictions as both counterproductive and extremely costly: More than 50 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of their release. If an ex-inmate were allowed, for example, to be among the 12,840 plumbers in New York City, whose median wage is almost $24 an hour, it might keep him from returning to prison, and save the state the $20,000 a year it costs to re-incarcerate him.

Few people would argue that all ex-offenders should be allowed into all occupations, regardless of their offense. There are some occupations involving children, for example, or crimes involving violence, that make certain restrictions the obviously prudent course of action.

But there is widespread objection to the automatic nature of the employment bans. “Anything that’s ‘blanket’ is a mistake,” said Mindy Tarlow, head of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps place ex-offenders back in the workforce. “It should be done on a case-by-case basis and I think that these laws prohibit that from happening.”

Nationally, the American Bar Association has called for an easing of restrictions on occupational licenses for those with criminal convictions. Locally, the New York City Council passed a resolution in November 2004 calling for the state legislature to end automatic employment bans for ex-offenders in many cases. Even in the state legislature itself, State Senator Dale Volker, a conservative Upstate Republican known for strongly supporting tough incarceration measures, has introduced legislation (S.7730) to revise the law so that unrelated convictions cannot be used to deny an occupational license or employment.

Despite these efforts, restrictions for ex-offenders actually have increased since September 11, 2001 and now include, for example, jobs involving the transport of hazardous wastes.

“The same legislators who vote for funding for reentry training programs support bills the formerly incarcerated from all sorts of employment,” says Glenn Martin of the National H.I.R.E. Network.

A Skewed Hiring Picture

New York State Correction Law has been revised over the years to offer some protection to ex-offenders; in some circumstances employers are prohibited from denying employment to someone simply because of a criminal record unless there is a "direct relationship" between the crime and the prospective job.

But employment bans still extend across some entire industries. Because the financial industry, for example, has certain restrictions against hiring convicted felons, those restrictions also apply to a vendor staffing a food service operation within a financial institution.

These restrictions only exacerbate the poor employment picture of ex-offenders by further tilting an already skewed playing field marred by racial inequality.

Recently, an experiment was conducted where black men and white men –- with equivalent resumes of education and experience -- posed as applicants for entry-level jobs. The white men admitted to having a criminal record; the blacks had no record. The result: White men with criminal records had a better chance of getting a job offer or a callback after an initial interview than did black men without records. And black men with criminal records were only about one-third as likely to get a job offer as were white men with criminal records.

Consider the implications of this when one in three black men with only a high school diploma will go to prison before the age of 40. Two out of five of New York City's black men are jobless, according to a Community Service Society report. A key factor in this low rate of employment among black men is the high percentage of those with felony convictions. Of New York State’s nearly 57,000 formerly incarcerated citizens out on parole, about 80 percent are black and Latino men from New York City.

Chance For Change?

The New York City Council last year created NYCWorks, appropriating $10 million to fund training programs for chronically jobless New Yorkers, targeting the structurally unemployed, out-of-school youth, and the formerly incarcerated. This initiative, which is now supporting programs offered by 31 organizations across the city, received a boost when the Council allocated another $18 million for it in this year’s budget.

Still to be seen is how Albany may change its statutory stance. Attorney General (and now Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Elliot Spitzer is no newcomer to the problem -- several years ago he worked with a coalition of community advocates on former Mayor Ed Koch’s “Second Chance” program for ex-offenders. “Spitzer is knowledgeable on this issue and as recently as last month he was in discussions with various coalitions of policymakers and advocates on the issues,” said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, co-director of National H.I.R.E. Network. “But his campaign has yet to come out with a position statement.”

Experts continue to believe that an investment in programs that help parolees attain economic self-sufficiency would yield a greater return both for the local economy and for public safety. “It’s a win-win situation when ex-offenders get jobs and have opportunities to become constructive, tax-paying members of society,” said Gabriel Torres-Rivera, a former prisoner himself who is now a colleague of mine. “But when those opportunities are continually denied, we all lose.”

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York. 

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