“I tried to assimilate. And I couldn’t:' The formerly incarcerated struggle to reenter the workplace. Now L.A. County trying to help

When Lily Gonzalez was released from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla in 2012, all she wanted to do was put incarceration behind her. She hoped to go back to work, continue her education at Cal State Northridge and reconnect with her 11-year-old daughter.

“I tried to assimilate,” she said. “And I couldn’t.”

Gonzalez had been convicted of multiple felonies for falsifying signatures on documents — “something stupid I did when I was 18 years old,” she said. Instead of returning to her old life, including a job with the county’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Gonzalez found herself stuck.

“I applied for jobs everywhere,” she said. “I’d go in for an interview, and they’d be reviewing my resume, and then they’d get to the application and see the box [asking about a criminal record] … and just in their body language you could see they weren’t interested anymore.”

Los Angeles County may soon join the City of Los Angeles and others around the country in making it easier for people like Gonzalez to find employment. Two motions approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday direct county officials to recommend standards for establishing “fair chance” ordinances in L.A. County.

The ordinances, which would apply to county government, businesses that contract with the county and businesses that operate in unincorporated L.A. County, would do away with restrictions on employment that are based solely on prior criminal records.

This could include such policies as not asking job seekers about criminal convictions until a conditional offer of employment is made, giving them an opportunity to appeal if an offer is rescinded and fining businesses that repeatedly flout the guidelines.

“Once someone has paid his or her debt to society, they ought to be afforded the opportunity to become productive citizens in the context of their respective communities,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said during discussion of the motions on Tuesday.

If adopted, Los Angeles County’s ordinances would follow similar policies that have been put in place elsewhere.

According to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy and research organization that tracks these policies nationwide, 28 states and more than 150 counties and cities now have “ban the box” policies, which eliminate the check box on job applications that asks about prior criminal convictions.

In nine states and 13 cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, these policies extend to private employers.

A California state law that went into effect in 2014 prohibits public employers from asking about criminal history on the initial application.

The state legislature is considering a bill that would make it unlawful for any employer, including private businesses, to ask about an applicant’s criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made.

Some business groups have opposed such legislation, arguing that it slows down the hiring process and exposes businesses to legal liability and litigation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sarah Golden with the Valley Industry Commerce Assn., which represents 400 businesses in L.A. County, said “it is essential that businesses not be overly burdened by lengthy appeal periods.” A 10-day appeal period, she said, means two workweeks that a position goes unfilled and possibly the loss of second- and third-choice candidates to other companies.

“We are also concerned that a fair chance ordinance will spawn costly and frivolous litigation,” she added.

Those in favor of employment policies aimed at helping people who have been incarcerated emphasized their importance in helping reintegrate those who have been released from prison back into society and preventing recidivism.

Peter Espinoza, head of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, said that, in addition to substance abuse and mental health issues, chronic unemployment is one of the primary barriers to smooth reentry.

Others argued that helping former felons benefits everyone, by reducing crime.

“A lack of hope and a lack of opportunity is actually a public safety problem,” said chief probation officer Terri McDonald.

Approximately three-quarters of released prisoners re-offend within five years, according to the National Institute of Justice. Studies have consistently shown that steady employment and close ties to family members decrease the likelihood of returning to criminal behavior; one 2011 study, published in the peer-review journal Justice Quarterly, found that post-release employment was the single-most important factor.

But people with criminal records are less likely to get jobs.

The policy of prohibiting employers from gathering information about an applicant’s past incarcerations is not without its unintended consequences, some research shows.

In 2015 and 2016 Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and Amanda Agan, an economist then at Princeton University, conducted a randomized, controlled experiment using 15,000 fictitious job applications to compare outcomes for young white and black men before and after ban the box policies went into effect in New Jersey and New York City.

While they confirmed that applicants who check the box are far less likely to get called back for an interview, they also found that once employers removed the box from the application, they turned to race as a proxy for criminality, relying on “wildly exaggerated stereotypes” about the difference in conviction rates between white and black men, Starr said.

“The effect of that was to very greatly increase the callback gap between our white and black applicants,” Starr said — from 7% to 43%, with the effect being that the split about evenly helped white applicants with records and harmed black applicants without them.

Gonzalez, for one, said that “the box” itself was the obstacle. She eventually turned to Homeboy Industries, a job training and reintegration program for former gang-involved and incarcerated men and women.

Gonzalez worked in maintenance there and later went back to school for her bachelor’s degree. She was readmitted to Cal State Northridge, but couldn’t get a job on campus. Her graduation was overshadowed by the difficulty she knew she’d face in finding work.

“Having a degree — no matter how many I had, it wasn’t going to make a difference,” she said.

Three months ago Gonzalez was hired as a community organizer at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which provides housing and supportive services for formerly incarcerated women.

An ordinance in L.A. County to keep employers from looking at applicants’ pasts, she said, would mean “everything.”

“We come home to nothing — you can’t find a job, you can’t find a place to live,” she said. “People ask, ‘Why do people go back to prison?’ This is why.”

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina

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