After serving five years in prison, John Jones III spent 18 months living on the streets and searching for work before becoming involved with the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County (JRC), a group of 15 different community and advocacy organizations who joined efforts to fight the stigma against people who have been incarcerated.
The stigma against people with criminal records makes it hard for them to find jobs and housing, and Jones is working to help people who are now in the predicament he was in after his own release. “There is nothing more important in life than the ability to keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food on your table,” Jones said.
The JRC’s latest efforts have been focused on a new re-entry hiring program in Alameda County, which aims to create 1,400 county job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. In June, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of establishing the program. The program will include job coaching and mentorship and training for county managers and employees who will supervise and hire participants.
“There is a real problem with discrimination in hiring,” said Danielle Mahones, an organizer for the JRC. “We think this program is so needed because it is sending a message and saying [that employers] acknowledge that this discrimination exists.”
According to a 2016 report by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), a group that organizes communities impacted by the criminal justice system and advocates for the release of incarcerated people, 1 in 3 people in the United States have a criminal record. Of that population, communities of color are most affected. For Latino males aged 18 to 64, 1 in 36 have been arrested or imprisoned. For black men, it is 1 in 12. According to a 2012 study by the Georgetown University Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, among white applicants with criminal records, 17 percent received callbacks for job interviews but African Americans without a criminal record only received callbacks 14 percent of the time.
For Jones, he says that finding jobs for formerly convicted criminals is important for public safety and to prevent them from returning to prison or jail again. “When I could not find a job, what is my alternative?” Jones said. “You are going to go back to the only lifestyle you know, whether that’s selling drugs, breaking into someone’s car, or whatever. It is crucial that formerly incarcerated people be given the opportunity to get real viable employment.” According to a study in the LSPC’s report, formerly incarcerated people with one year of employment had a 16 percent recidivism rate over three years.
Studies from LSPC show that time in prison can reduce a person’s yearly earnings by 40 percent, because most can only find part-time or temporary jobs.
If a formerly incarcerated person earns minimum wage, which will increase to $12.86 as of January 1, 2017, and works 40 hours a week in Oakland, their monthly take-home pay would come out to $2,229 a month, excluding taxes and benefits. According to a 2016 annual report on rent prices in Oakland by Zumper, an apartment rental website, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment runs around $2,000.
Additionally, when people are released from jail or prison, 85 percent face criminal justice debts, according to the report. This debt can include payment of fines, court and supervision fees.
According to a timeline set by the county’s board of supervisors, the program will be implemented in January, 2017. But before the board’s regular meeting on October 11, the JRC held a march and rally calling on the board to fulfill its promise of providing jobs by January, a reaction to some recent delays in rolling out the program. The rally’s participants held up signs pleading the board to “Stop Stalling – Invest Now” and urging “Let’s Start Hiring.”
According to the board’s initial timeline, Kathy Mount, the Interim Director of Alameda County Human Resource Services (HRS), was supposed to present a report to the board detailing the county jobs that would be allotted for program participants, the diversity of jobs available and a plan for the long-term success of the program on September 28. Mount informed the board at a September meeting that she had a long-standing family vacation planned and would not be able to meet the board’s deadline.
Instead, Mount delivered the report on October 11, which showed that HRS identified 50 entry level job classifications that could be available for formerly incarcerated people, such as clerk positions, library pages and janitors. The entry level positions would require no more than two years of experience and require only a high school degree or equivalent.
Mount did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether these positions would fall short of the 1,400 jobs that were outlined in the board’s original approval of the program.
“None of us are expecting all 1,400 to become available on January 1,” Mahones said. “But we do need more details on what types of jobs are going to be available when and I still think there is time for them to recover from this initial setback.”
The new hiring program is the latest in a series of county efforts to increase hiring opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. In 2006, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance to “ban the box,” which refers to a standard question on job applications that asks the applicant if they have a criminal record. Under this ordinance, hiring managers are required to delay asking about a candidate’s criminal history until later in the hiring process, in some cases until after a job offer has been made. Proponents of this approach, including the JRC, believe that before the question was removed, candidates with arrests or conviction records were unfairly eliminated from employment opportunities.
As of August, more than 130 cities and counties and 24 states had taken the “ban the box” approach. According to Mount’s report, 571 people in Alameda County have received employment as a result of the rule change.
Jones said that while he applauds this progress, there’s still more work to be done, because most private employers use background checks. “If an employer does a background check, all they see is your record,” Jones said. “And then you have no opportunity for an in-person interview to explain your record.”
According to a 2012 report by the Society for Human Resource Management, approximately 69 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on their job candidates.
Sandra Johnson, a formerly incarcerated 59-year old Oakland woman who is now a City College of San Francisco student, says she could benefit from the county making jobs available to people like her. “This program would mean the world to me,” Johnson said. “It would give me a purpose.”