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It’s hard to find a job if you’ve been in jail. A new program is trying to fix that

New graduates of Cal State L.A.'s Prison B.A. Program enter the yard at California State Prison in Lancaster
New graduates of Cal State L.A.’s Prison B.A. Program enter the yard at California State Prison in Lancaster on Oct. 5, 2021. Skills developed behind bars are often discounted by employers on the outside.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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The tight job market has made it easier for millions of Americans to find work in recent years — unless they have a criminal record.

Take, for example, what happened to John Rodriguez after he was released from prison in 2017, having served nine years for shooting and wounding a man as a 17-year-old in Venice. After returning home, he got offered a job as his grandmother’s caretaker, which he could do while taking classes in college. But the offer was rescinded when the employer found out about his criminal record.

Later, he said, the owner of a cafe hired him to work in the kitchen without running a background check, so she didn’t know about his conviction. But it was a hard secret to keep, given that his parole officer could have dropped into the cafe at any time to check on him.

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Those experiences made him realize that even though he’d served his term, he couldn’t simply put the mistake he’d made as a teenager behind him. “It feels like you have a stamp on your forehead that you’ll never be able to remove,” Rodriguez said.

According to a 2022 study by Rand Corp., more than half of unemployed men in their 30s had been arrested at least once. Overall, more than a quarter of all formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, including 44% of Black women and 35% of Black men, a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found.

The inability to find work, in turn, feeds the vicious spiral of recidivism, in which 2 out of 3 people coming out of California prisons return within three years (often for parole violations), said Quan Huynh, executive director of Defy Ventures’ Southern California operations. How can they earn a living, Huynh asked, when employers are offering them only “menial jobs where there’s no career trajectory, and they’re not feeling like they’re contributing to anything?”

That’s why Los Angeles County launched its second Fair Chance Hiring Program this year to promote the hiring of “system impacted” individuals — that is, Californians with criminal records and their close relatives. The program builds on the Fair Chance Act, a 2017 state law that bars most employers with five or more workers from rejecting applicants just because they have a criminal record.

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The county offers financial incentives to help persuade companies to hire formerly incarcerated people, while also partnering with several community-based services to help prepare formerly incarcerated people for the job market. One of those services is Root & Rebound, where Rodriguez now works as the Fair Chance employment specialist.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors also agreed to develop a Fair Chance ordinance that tracks the state’s requirements, but adds teeth: Employers could be fined up to $2,000 per violation, with half the money going to the job-seeker who brought the complaint.

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Here is a breakdown of the legal requirements and incentives for employers and the opportunities for Fair Chance job-seekers in L.A. County.

What the law requires

As of Jan. 1, 2018, most companies with five or more workers cannot ask job applicants upfront whether they have any arrests or convictions on their record (the exceptions being law enforcement agencies, farm labor contractors and other employers required by law to make these inquiries). Nor can they conduct background checks, do internet searches or take any other steps aimed at unearthing the criminal histories of their applicants.

This mandate is often referred to as “banning the box,” meaning that job application forms could no longer include a box for prospective hires to mark if they had a criminal record. The law’s goal is to end employers’ blanket refusal to hire formerly incarcerated people, requiring employers to judge applicants and their records individually, in the context of the work they would be doing.

Notably, the law doesn’t bar employers from considering a person’s criminal record; it only forces them to delay that issue until after offering the person a job. They can later withdraw the offer, but only if they discover convictions that have “a direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job that justify denying the applicant the position,” according to the Fair Chance Act.

That individualized assessment must consider at least three things, according to state regulations:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense or conduct;
  • The time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and
  • The nature of the job held or sought.

What, exactly, an individualized assessment entails hasn’t been well defined, said Nicole Jeong, Southern California regional director of advocacy for Root & Rebound. But the state Civil Rights Department is in the latter stages of revising the regulations to clarify what is and isn’t involved in an assessment. Among many other details, it would state that if an applicant holds a professional license to do the job, then that person’s criminal record is not relevant.

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The law also requires employers who tentatively withdraw a job offer to give applicants the chance to submit new evidence of rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances before making a final decision.

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Other state laws bar employers from considering arrests that don’t lead to convictions. California law doesn’t allow the companies that do background checks to show such information; nor can they reveal expunged convictions, sealed records or convictions whose sentences were completed more than seven years ago. Public employers, however, have access to an applicant’s full rap sheet, Jeong said, and it can be hard for people to unsee the arrest records they see there.

Root & Rebound offers a comprehensive guide to the law’s requirements as a download from its website.

Benefits for employers and workers

Kelly LoBianco, director of the L.A. County Department of Economic Opportunity, said the county’s Fair Chance Hiring Program tries to match employers with formerly incarcerated workers who have the requisite skills and experience. The direct benefits for employers include a federal tax credit of $1,200 to $9,600 per Fair Chance applicant hired and a state tax credit of $2,500 to $10,000 per participant who had been homeless at some point in the previous six months, as many formerly incarcerated people are. The state also has a new employment credit that can cover 35% of the wages paid to qualified hires.

The county offers payroll subsidies that cover up to 90% of the cost of training someone hired through the program, among other grants to offset the cost of a new employee. And up to $10,000 worth of bonding insurance is available at no charge to cover any losses that might be caused by a Fair Chance program hire in the first six months on the job.

For job-seekers, LoBianco said, the 19 regional America’s Job Centers overseen by the county will offer résumé building, interview preparation and career counseling. The county can also connect these applicants to the services that many people need to hold down a job, such as transportation, work clothes and cash assistance. It also offers grants for training programs in high-growth industries at community colleges and trade schools, and is working with the building trades to provide apprenticeships in construction, she said.

The county didn’t create these programs from scratch for Fair Chance applicants; instead, it adapted existing efforts to this population, LoBianco said. But the county is placing a higher priority than before on the residents who are most in need of help, which includes homeless people, veterans and LGBTQ individuals as well as formerly incarcerated job-seekers.

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For the record:

11:22 a.m. March 2, 2023An earlier version of this article included Defy Ventures among the service providers that have partnered with Los Angeles County’s Fair Chance Hiring Program. Defy Ventures’ efforts are independent of the county’s.

The goal is to find jobs for 2,000 formerly incarcerated people and close relatives affected by the justice system, up about 5% from the previous four years’ results, LoBianco said. To that end, the county has partnered with service providers such as Root & Rebound and LeadersUp to reach out to more “system impacted” individuals and employers in high-growth sectors.

Defy Ventures does seven-month training programs inside prisons to create “entrepreneurs in training,” Huynh said. The point isn’t to launch a bunch of start-ups, he said, but to teach lessons in grit, resilience and pivoting to new opportunities. “We’re not breeding complainers, these are problem-solvers,” he said.

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The group is also focused on changing employers’ mindsets, exploring the assumptions and fears underlying their reluctance to hire people with criminal records. “Listen, we’re not asking you to give any jobs here,” he said. “If you’re looking for the best possible candidate, you should hire the best possible candidate” — even if that person happens to have spent time behind bars.

Rodriguez said Root & Rebound helps its clients become better applicants, giving them tips and tools and preparing them for what they’ll encounter as job-seekers. But it also educates them about their rights under the Fair Chance Act, as well as providing legal help. (For a more in-depth description, see Root & Rebound’s comprehensive reentry toolkit for formerly incarcerated people.)

Jeong, Rodriguez and Huynh, who spent 22 years behind bars for a murder he committed when he was 21, said one issue for this group is learning how to convey to potential employers the value of the professional and interpersonal skills they learned behind bars. While they may not have a lot of traditional job experience, Jeong said, many have held multiple jobs while incarcerated. “In addition to that,” she said, “I think a lot of them have done a lot of work on themselves.”

Where things stand

According to the county Department of Economic Opportunity, seven out of 10 employers are unaware of the Fair Chance Act, and six out of 10 were not at all familiar with the county’s incentives. That’s one of the main reasons L.A. County is launching another Fair Chance program (its first was in 2019), which LoBianco said includes a “really robust marketing campaign” to make sure employers know about the law’s requirements and benefits. The county’s goal is to bring 500 more employers into the effort, up from the 202 that pledged to take part in 2019.

Jeong said she’s still hearing about employers whose initial job applications ask about an applicant’s criminal record, contrary to the Fair Chance Act. Nor has she seen much of a reduction in complaints from formerly incarcerated people about employment-related problems.

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“I think in people’s minds there is still a lot of negative connotations of being somebody who is formerly incarcerated,” Jeong said. “It was maybe harder for employers to see individuals applying as full human beings before the law was passed.”

Even when employers follow the law, formerly incarcerated people may have gaps in their resumes that make it harder for them to stand out from competing job-seekers. And they know employers will ask them to explain the gap, which presents a dilemma, Rodriguez said — to be forthcoming or to keep silent about the time spent incarcerated? “It feels like you’re on trial again, even though you’re technically not,” he said.

Root & Rebound advises its clients to initiate the discussion and give their potential employer a fuller context than what they’ll see on a background check. “What they’re not going to see are all the steps that you took to address those past actions,” he said.

There is a movement among employers to shift to “skills-based hiring” that focuses less on degrees and more on the applicant’s ability to perform the tasks at hand, LoBianco said. And that shift can help formerly incarcerated people. Nevertheless, she said, the biggest hurdle isn’t persuading employers to consider these applicants — it’s getting employers to hire them.

Fair Chance advocates say the value of these employees is borne out by research. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than 80% of hiring managers and top business executives said that formerly incarcerated people performed as well as or better than their co-workers. This group also tended to stay in their jobs longer, while being at least as productive as their peers, the county Office of Economic Opportunity says.

Which is not to suggest that these folks are perfect. Huynh said the recidivism rate for the people who go through Defy Ventures’ Entrepreneurs in Training program is far lower than the average, but some do reoffend or violate their paroles. Less than 15% return to prison within three years, he said, compared with about 66% for all of California’s formerly incarcerated population.

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The key to changing attitudes is for managers to hire more formerly incarcerated people, Jeong said, adding, “Once an employer employs somebody who does have a record and sees how hardworking they are, how dedicated they are, how capable they are, that is something that has really helped shift culture in companies.”

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