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Getting beyond ‘the box’

PATT MORRISON's e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com

BELIEVE IN the American credo, do you? Second chances, bootstraps, clean slate, all that? Good for you. I do too. Let’s see whether you still do after reading this.

A vast class of men and women -- maybe 13 million of them -- live under an unbreakable glass ceiling. They committed a crime, and they helped to put that ceiling in place themselves. But isn’t there a statute of limitations on punishment? Can’t someone help them turn that glass ceiling into a sunroof?

These people, ex-felons mostly, are out of the cell, but they’re still in “the box” -- the little square on almost every job application that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Most of us breeze by it. For those millions -- and another 650,000 who are paroled or released every year -- that box is the end of the line. Check that box, and check off your chance for a job.

Why should you care? Because you pay for it too, one way or another. Connect the dots: One Californian in five has a criminal record (in no small part because the “war on drugs” has been cramming prisons with first-time offenders). Two-thirds of the prison population is brown or black. In South Central L.A., for example, more than half the people don’t work, and nearly one-third live below the poverty line. “The box” is one of many reasons why.

Janet D. is 51, with a long misdemeanor record for prostitution and drugs. Eight years ago she was arrested in an alley at 3 a.m. buying dope. A Superior Court judge named Craig Veals gave her a choice: two years in prison or a year in drug rehab. She took rehab, sullenly, but now, once a year, she goes back to thank him, to show him she’s still clean. Last time he didn’t even recognize her, with her suit and her briefcase and her hair all done up.

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Employers are harder to impress. Janet got an associate of arts degree in clerical work, but agencies can only send her to temp jobs that don’t put “the box” on the application. She just spent four months in a temp job, and the company was eager to hire her full time. She passed two interviews. She passed a drug test. Then she came home to a blinking light on the answering machine -- a call from the temp agency.

“The message,” Janet told me, was “ ‘You know that thing you worried about? Well, it came up. And your assignment has ended.’

“I was devastated, and I thought, ‘Some dope would sure be good right now,’ and I said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ And I had this credit card, and I thought, ‘Some shopping would make me feel better,’ and I said, ‘No, I can’t do that either. I have come too far.’ ”

Too far from that alley at 3 a.m., but not close enough to full-time work.

“If I show up late and I’m not giving 100%, I can deal with you letting me go,” Janet said. “But I’m trying to get in the door, and you say you can’t hire me because I was arrested in 1996? ... You don’t make a decision on a whole person based on a little box.” She can see why companies wouldn’t want to hire rapists or murderers, but “the box” doesn’t make a distinction between an ex-hooker and an ex-killer.

Her cousin’s boyfriend “was a thug, but he got a degree at [Cal State] Dominguez, and he can’t get a job because of his background,” she said. “He’s just gonna go back to what he was doing” -- selling drugs. And get caught. And go back to prison.

That kind of human recycling is one reason the Bush administration backs a measure called the Second Chance Act. “When the prison gates open,” the White House says, “the president believes that the path ahead should be an opportunity for a better life.”

Boston, Chicago and San Francisco officials are “blocking the box” -- taking the prior-conviction question off applications for city and county jobs and leaving it to be asked in a face-to-face interview, where the full story can be told. Los Angeles city and county are thinking of doing the same thing.

Otherwise, such applications go to the bottom of the pile. Matthew Burke knows, because he put them there, when he was an employment recruiter, a man who went to college and mastered computers, a man with his own office.

“Then I got in trouble,” he said, “and now the tables are switched.”

He cashed a forged check to finance his meth habit and served 44 days for grand theft. That was three years ago, and even this former job recruiter, who knows all the angles for getting in the door, can’t find a good permanent job.

“They’ll even tell me, ‘Your qualifications are great, but we can’t hire someone with a felony; that’s company policy.’ ”

He’s paying restitution -- $7,500 -- but without a good job he can’t wipe out the debt, “and if you don’t pay it back [in time], you can never get [the felony] off your record.”

“You want to be truthful, you want to explain your side ... but 90% of this world will say once a felon, always a felon -- there’s no forgiveness.”

If they’ve served their time for a not-too-heinous crime, how about letting them punch a time card? If we’re going to let them out, then give them a means to stay out.


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