Ban the Box for Colleges, Too

Finding a job — especially one that pays well —is key to keeping those with a criminal history from being rearrested. Removing criminal history questions on college applications will lead to better outcomes not only for people with records, but for society as a whole, argues an R Street researcher.

A growing number of Americans are required to physically check a box on all sorts of applications — including those for education, jobs and even housing — if they have a criminal history.

Sadly, this means that even a single lapse in judgment can become a major obstacle for individuals, even after they have paid their debt to society.

Michigan recently took a step toward “banning the box” for career-related applications, meaning people seeking jobs and certain occupational licenses will no longer be required to check a box indicating that they have been convicted of a felony.

The state also happens to be a leader in correctional education practices, partnering with Jackson College to provide college courses in prisons and working to support those incarcerated with Vocational Village programs.

Given this positive momentum, it makes sense for the Wolverine State (and other states as well) to move “beyond the box” in the educational context by removing the felony check-boxes on college applications.

Colleges and universities are in a unique position to help remove barriers that prevent the estimated 70 million American citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education — specifically early in the application process when prospective students are asked about an arrest record.

At the federal level, Sen. Brian Schatz( D-HI), has introduced legislation to provide resources for colleges that are considering how to end the criminal history reporting requirement. Senate Bill 3435, the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act of 2018, would direct the secretary of education to issue guidance and recommendations for institutions of higher education on removing criminal and juvenile record questions from their admissions applications.

A recent survey of post-secondary institutions found that about two-thirds collect criminal history information from all applicants. Even more troubling, a Center for Community Alternatives study found that 25 percent of the schools that ask for criminal histories have some criminal history-related automatic bar to admission.

For individuals with felony records — and particularly for those who would be re-entering society after a prison sentence — education can be the key to finding successful employment.

In fact, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that by 2020, “employers will seek cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.”

For those seeking employment, this means that the likelihood of attaining work will increase with greater access to higher education.

By removing criminal history questions from applications, colleges and universities can contribute to long-term, positive economic returns for these individuals — and help keep them from returning to prison.

Studies have shown that workers with post-secondary education earn 74 percent more than workers with a high school diploma or less.

Similarly, research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that wages tripled for people who have earned doctoral and professional degree compared to those individuals with less than a high school diploma.

Given that finding a job — especially one that pays well — is key to keeping those with a criminal history from being rearrested, removing criminal history questions on college applications will likely lead to better outcomes not only for people with records, but for society as a whole.

Benefits for Children

Furthermore, when a parent has a post-secondary education, his or her child is more likely to attend college as well, thereby passing additional, positive educational impacts on to the next generation. Theoretically, then, if we help ensure more parents have access to higher education, this can create a community with less unemployment and more stability for generations.

Opponents of eliminating criminal history-reporting on college applications point to the potential for increased crime on campus. Yet research has found no substantial evidence that screening applicants for prior convictions improves safety on campus.

Furthermore, some of the most serious crimes committed on campus have been committed by people with no criminal record.

Education is critical to ensuring lifelong success, and for those re-entering society, access to education can provide long-term, positive outcomes.

Jesse Kelley

Jesse Kelley

States like Michigan, which have already taken steps to ban the box and implement correctional education programs, have a unique opportunity to be on the precipice of moving beyond the box to ensure that the lasting benefits higher education are accessible to all.

Jesse Kelley (@JessDKelley) is a policy analyst and government affairs specialist for criminal justice with the R Street Institute.


National Database Tracks ‘Collateral Consequences’ of Justice Involvement

Thousands of state and federal statutes restrict people with criminal records from participating fully in society. A new tool launched Wednesday will help officials identify –and possibly revise or eliminate—them.

The National Reentry Resource Center and the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center have launched a new tool designed to make it easier to identify the damaging “collateral consequences” of involvement in the justice system.

The tool, called the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction was launched Wednesday. One leading corrections official described it as an important first step in addressing the legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions that limit or prohibit people with criminal records from accessing employment, occupational licensing, housing, voting, education, and other opportunities.

“It’s amazing how, in the midst of helping people reenter society, we’re often flying blind when it comes to understanding some of the things they’re up against,” said John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in a press release accompanying the announcement.

“A lot of the time, the people who are responsible for the enforcement of these regulatory sanctions aren’t even aware of them.  This database…gives us a clear view into these obstacles in each state, which will help us navigate the reentry process and, in some cases, could lead to policy change.”

The inventory compiles thousands of statutes that impose collateral consequences in all 50 states, the federal system, and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico into a searchable database by relevant components of the consequence including offense categories, fields of employment, and jurisdiction.

The website, which will be maintained by the CSG Justice Center and is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, is available to the public, but can be particularly useful to defense attorneys, prosecutors, people convicted of crimes, and criminal defendants contemplating plea deals.

“When a person leaves prison or jail, it is critical that they be given an opportunity to succeed,” Justice Michael Boggs of the Georgia Supreme Court said in a press release. “Public safety is improved by ensuring successful reentry. However, there are more than 40,000 provisions in state and federal law that stand in their way right out of the gate.

“The first step to making meaningful change is understanding these barriers. This resource does just that, and it provides the information in a way that’s easy to navigate.”

In its release, the CSG notes that some collateral consequences do serve a legitimate purpose, such as regulations that prevent people convicted of violent offenses from owning guns, prohibit people convicted of assault or physical abuse from working with children or the elderly, and bar people convicted of fraud from positions of public trust.

“But some collateral consequences apply without regard to the relationship between the crime and opportunity being restricted, such as the revocation of a business license after conviction of any felony,” the center wrote on its website.

“Frequently, consequences also apply without consideration of the time passed between the conviction and the opportunity being sought or the person’s rehabilitation efforts since the conviction.”

A movement to restore formerly incarcerated people’s rights has taken shape in recent years, and this year President Donald Trump proclaimed April as Second Chance Month.

The federal Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 called on the National Institute of Justice  to research collateral consequences in each U.S. jurisdiction.  In 2012, the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association began working on the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction. The project was taken over by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in 2017.

This report was written by TCR news intern J. Gabriel Ware.  Readers’ comments are welcome.


Ending Crime Checkbox for College Praised by Inmate Advocates

For the first time since 2006, students using the Common Application to apply to college will not need to check a box asking if they have criminal histories. The decision was welcomed as a positive step by advocates of the Ban the Box movement to eliminate barriers to prisoner re-entry.

This fall, for the first time since 2006, students using the Common Application to apply to college will not need to check a box asking if they have criminal histories.

Accepted by over 700 colleges and universities worldwide, the Common App is the country’s most broadly used college application. The change comes following a 10-year campaign to “Ban the Box” by a broad coalition of advocates who claim that the question creates “an undue barrier that harms certain groups of students.”

In a press release, the New York-based nonprofit College & Community Fellowship said that the decision to ban the box “will have tremendously positive effects for college applicants with justice histories, and for colleges that seek to serve increasingly diverse student bodies.”

The criminal history question had not been demonstrated to meaningfully improve campus safety, and many accounts suggested that it deterred those who had been involved in the justice system from seeking higher education upon release.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education quoted one student with a criminal history who considered applying to a top-tier university: “I started the application process right away, but stopped in my tracks when I encountered the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? I thought to myself, ‘Why apply? They are just going to reject me.’”

A study conducted by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition found that for every student rejected by SUNY application committees because of a prior felony conviction, 15 did not complete their applications because they feared checking the box.

The Ban the Box coalition hopes that the Common App’s move will be the first step in a wave of institutional changes. Some colleges and universities still ask applicants to disclose their criminal histories, but most have no set procedure for following up with applicants, resulting in arbitrary admissions practices like requesting access to legally sealed documents and other unpredictable, ineffective criteria.

A Center for Community Alternatives study found that fewer than half of the schools that collect criminal justice background information have official policies in place regarding their usage of the information, and only 40 percent train staff on how to interpret such information.

Vivian Nixon, the Executive Director of College and Community Fellowship and a formerly incarcerated receiver of college reentry services, said, “Upon my release from the criminal justice system, I found myself forced to constantly explain my mistakes as I faced questions about my criminal history on job, housing, and even college admissions applications.”

She added, in a press statement on the decision: “These checkboxes asking me to disclose weren’t just an annoyance – they threatened to derail my success and keep me from being the engaged citizen I longed to be.”

We congratulate the College Board, and look forward to a future where justice and safety are evidence-based, rather than stigma-informed.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


NY Legislator Moves to Reverse ‘Ban the Box’ Law for State Schools

The director of a nonprofit working with formerly incarcerated women warns the proposed bill is a step backward in the national campaign to end job and educational discrimination against individuals trying to remake their lives after prison.

New York State representatives are pursuing legislation that further targets a disenfranchised population with few resources to succeed after prison.

That’s incomprehensible.

Sen. Kenneth P. Lavalle (R-NY) this week proposed a bill to reverse a State University of New York (SUNY) “Ban the Box” initiative enacted in late 2016 by the SUNY Board of Trustees in response to a student-led campaign.

The proposed law would require SUNY schools to include “a question on whether the applicant has been convicted of any violent felony offense” on their applications.

If they are successful, it would bring back a discriminatory and ineffective application process that strips formerly incarcerated individuals of any chance to pursue an education.

Even the reddest states, such as Louisiana, have signed “Ban the Box” laws into state constitutions in the past few years. Formerly incarcerated advocates have been the driving force behind the movement, demonstrating that access to opportunities post-prison results in safer communities.

There is no scientific evidence to support criminal records as a predictor of campus safety. In fact, research shows that colleges that restrict access based on criminal histories do not have demonstrably lower crime rates.

If we want people coming home to stay out of prison and engage in society, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to get an education, in order to better provide for themselves, their families, and their communities? By blocking access to education, colleges are perpetuating cycles of crime and poverty—without opportunities to become economically mobile, people often have no choice but to revert to old habits and behaviors.

The “Box” has been proven to discourage and discriminate against applicants with criminal convictions. Issues with the “Box” are two-fold: it acts as a deterrent for those with criminal records to finish their applications, and it allows universities to immediately reject applicants based on long-held social biases.

A 2009 study looking at SUNY’s use of the “Box” found that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 did not complete their applications due to the experience of facing the checkbox: an indication that those with convictions are not welcome at SUNY schools.

If this is an attempt to protect students, as some legislators have said, it’s misplaced. Most on-campus crimes are committed by students with no prior criminal history, and often relate to binge-drinking, athletics and Greek life.

SUNY made its decision to ban the box based on research. Why would New York State legislators move us backward?

Vivian Nixon

Vivian Nixon

I am living proof that the Box fails to do anything other than discriminate. I was rejected from SUNY after checking the “Box” on its application. Thankfully, I was able to return to a school I had enrolled in prior to my incarceration and I earned my undergraduate degree. Now, I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit and a graduate student at Columbia University.

Education is a highly effective tool for changing the trajectory of one’s life. This is especially true for individuals with criminal convictions. The nonprofit I now run, College & Community Fellowship, helps formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. To date, our Fellows have earned more than 300 degrees (including a PhD and a J.D.!), and less than one percent have gone back to prison in our 17 years of operation.

That translates to more than 300 degree-holding women who are now active participants in their communities, and who contribute to their local economies and our society as a whole.

Imagine what the numbers would show if the “Box” was banned across the nation.

It would be a grave injustice to walk back the policies students and advocates have worked so hard to change. Bringing back the “Box” perpetuates our system of mass incarceration, and targets communities that are languishing under crushing economic burdens.

We must see to it that legislation such as this is promptly discarded.

Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Employers Want Guarantees Before Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated: Study

Employers are more likely to hire formerly incarcerated individuals if a replacement is guaranteed in the event the individual doesn’t work out, according to a Rand survey. Certificates of previous work experience, guaranteed transportation and tax credits also help.

Employers are more likely to hire formerly incarcerated individuals if they are guaranteed a replacement in the event the individual doesn’t work out, according to a Rand study.

They also were 53 percent more likely to employ released inmates if a reentry service or state agency could provide a certificate showing “positive previous work performance,” and the individual could demonstrate he or she had a consistent means of transportation to get to the job, Rand said.

The conclusions were based on a survey of 107 employers that Rand said were “broadly representative” of industries around the country with work forces of less than 100 persons.

“It might seem as though employers are worried only about whether ex-offenders will conduct themselves in a safe manner or be courteous to staff and customers, but they want more details about a person’s work performance,” the study authors wrote.

Rand said its findings only applied to the employment of ex-offenders with one nonviolent felony conviction, noting that more than half of the survey respondents showed concern about hiring individuals imprisoned for violent felonies.

The survey, entitled ‘Breaking Down Barriers,” was aimed at identifying policies that would provide hiring incentives to employers, even as many states have moved to abolish discriminatory practices such as asking for previous convictions on job applications, in response to the nationwide “Ban the Box” movement.

But it made clear that without more pro-active policies, employers would continue to remain cautious about hiring people who had served prison time.

According to the findings, more than half the employers who responded to the survey said they would consider putting a former inmate on their payroll if tax credits were provided, along with a “post-conviction certificate” that showed the individual would adhere to company rules.

The findings lend added weight to initiatives aimed at improving the work skills of inmates before they are released through targeted counseling programs—which was among the topics discussed at a White House roundtable earlier this month on strengthening prisoner reentry.

A complete copy of the study can be downloaded here.


Why Ending Bias Against the Formerly Incarcerated Helps All Americans

At his Congressional testimony last week, JustUSA Leadership founder Glenn Martin called for more federal support for ending job restrictions affecting individuals released from prison. Here he explains why.

Think back to the last time you bought a pair of sunglasses. Think about the person who sold them to you.

Describe that person in one word.

You probably said, “man,” “woman,” “young,” “old,” “energetic,” “smart,” or a similar descriptor.

I’m willing to bet you didn’t say “criminal.”

The irony in that is my being branded a criminal is the reason I could not get a job selling sunglasses after I left prison. I applied as soon as I was released. The manager, Michael, said I was bright and articulate and that I’d make a great salesperson.

Glenn Martin

Glenn E. Martin. Photo courtesy JustLeadershipUSA

Michael said he’d love to hire me. I was excited just to be out of the cage that had confined me for six years. To be this close to the thing that could keep me from ever going back—a job—was even better.

So you understand the debilitating crash of emotion when Michael called me later that day to tell me he couldn’t hire me. He said he couldn’t do so because I was a felon.

I should have been able to apply for that job with an identity that millions of others take for granted: father, husband, son, graduate. But I couldn’t. Those identities were taken from me by the overpowering stigma of the justice system, and I could not retrieve those identities in the course of my application because policies like Ban the Box did not exist.

That’s exactly why I went to Congress this month to testify not just in support of Representative Elijah Cummings’ Fair Chance Act (which would apply a Ban the Box policy to federal agencies and contractors), but also in support of additional, farther-reaching Ban the Box policies that would apply to all employers.

I know formerly incarcerated men and women need job opportunities. From my story and my work as President of JustLeadershipUSA, I know how much employment matters in transitioning away from the shadows of concrete walls and barbed wire fences that darken our lives and diminish our humanity.

The data confirms these personal narratives.

We know that reducing recidivism requires successful reentry. We know successful reentry requires access to meaningful and gainful employment opportunities. And we know that access to employment is fueled by implementation of Ban the Box policies and passage of the Fair Chance Act.

We also know there is tremendous urgency to this situation. Seventy million Americans have a criminal record. One-in-three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Each of these people might be told that their worst moment will forever obstruct their access to redemption.

For these men and women, Ban the Box policies are about more than getting a fair shot at a second—or, in many cases, first—chance. These policies demonstrate a government’s commitment to identifying, understanding and eradicating the vile and racist realities of its broken criminal justice system.

Just as importantly, these policies benefit the people who haven’t been directly impacted.

Taxpayers are currently funding a corrosive system that insidiously feeds itself by preventing people trapped in the system from escaping its clutches. Maximizing access to post-incarceration employment is the best way to break the chains that keep us trapped.

Additionally, having a job is what will enable someone to meet his or her myriad financial obligations—rent, food, child support, housing—while also contributing to the tax base and the community at large.

Despite this, and despite the research showing the fundamental importance of Ban the Box policies as key elements of holistic reentry reform, there are people like Jennifer Doleac who’d have you believe that these policies should not implemented.

Doleac argues that these policies actually hurt our chances at landing a job.

There are multiple problems in the research that Doleac and her colleagues continue to espouse, including the fact that the data she examines is extremely limited, and that the takeaway conclusions of her report are actually directly refuted by other parts of her own research. But the biggest issues stem from the fact that Doleac seems to lack the lived experience and cultural competency needed to design and thoroughly understand the results of a study on these policies.

As the written testimony that I submitted to Congress makes clear, this insensitivity to the realities of our lived experiences undermines the integrity of her findings, and should force all policymakers to question whether not those findings should be applied to their work.

At the same time, none of us would argue that Ban the Box or the Fair Chance Act are, on their own, comprehensive solutions to the challenges of successful reentry. As the recent Committee on Government and Oversight Reform hearing made clear, significant reinvestment in reentry support services and Bureau of Prisons reentry programming is similarly crucial, as is the commitment of the Bureau of Prisons to actually rededicate itself to the cause of ensuring that those who come into the justice system leave better off than when they entered.

See also: Federal Prison Director Defends Halfway House Cuts.

Still, Ban the Box is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Look at the impact these policies have had already. When Dorsey Nunn and his colleagues at All of Us or None started making a values-centered push for these ideas, it wasn’t clear how far they’d get. Yet my being invited to advocate for these policies in the United States Congress speaks volumes about their intrinsic power. Ban the Box can inform and inspire a long overdue conversation about how we treat people and whether or not we make redemption accessible.

And as I hope my story demonstrates, the often-ignored voices of the millions of directly impacted people in this country must drive that conversation, and guide the implementation of whatever reforms we achieve as a result.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 by empowering people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to drive criminal justice reform. He welcomes comments from readers.


Redemption at the Gym: A Muscular Approach to Prisoner Reentry

A New York City nonprofit launched by an entrepreneur who spent time behind bars is teaching the formerly incarcerated to become personal trainers—and at the same time puncturing stereotypes that have limited employment opportunities for the millions of Americans with criminal records.

When you walk into the weightlifting room of the CompleteBody gym in the buzzy Chelsea neighborhood in downtown New York City, it feels at first like any other fitness center.

The room vibrates with the thump of barbells and the voices of trainers urging “just one more rep.” The walls are covered with photos of former clients like actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as “The Rock.” and promotions about using legal formulas while trying to gain muscles faster

The clients focusing intensely on their workouts—and the trainers urging them on—also look like people you might encounter at any gym. But the usual crowd of office workers also includes a special group of people who until recently were confined behind prison walls.

For the past two years, the CompleteBody gym has been host to a program that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for careers as personal trainers.

“It’s about providing a second chance,” said Hector Guadalupe, who came up with the idea after he was released from prison.

Some 70 individuals have gone through the program, called “A Second U,” since it moved to the gym facility. Successful graduates of the six-week-long course have landed jobs at major sports facilities and health clubs around Manhattan.

Although national attention is increasingly focused on the importance of stable employment and career counseling for the formerly incarcerated, opportunities are still limited because of the stigma associated with time in prison.

And they are further constricted by the legal and social barriers preventing employment of former inmates in many occupations.

A Second U is among the innovative programs that are proving why many of those barriers need to be re-examined.

According to Guadalupe, “returning citizens” (his preferred phrase) deserve a chance to show how they have moved beyond the behavior and attitudes that first landed them in the criminal justice system.”

“93 percent of our graduates have maintained consistent employment,” he said during a recent tour of the facility.

The non-profit group not only recruits, educates and trains participants—both men and women—but helps them with job placement. The program goes beyond physical conditioning training to provide students with tutorials in client relations, managing bookings, and what Guadalupe describes as “mindset training.”

Changing a returning citizen’s “mindset,” says Guadalupe, plays an important role in landing— and keeping—a job. He and his team concentrate as much on developing the social skills of living outside institutional facilities as on the most effective fitness exercises. Go to this website for more weight loss ideas.

Those skills are central to many re-entry programs now underway around the country.

“They teach you what’s appropriate and what’s not.” said Toney Earl, Jr., Founder and Executive Director of M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, a re-entry agency based in Rockland County, NY.

“Someone may give you a shot, but if you blow that by making people uncomfortable, you’re wasting your time.”

A Second U gives its participants training in everything from appropriate dress codes and communications to the importance of being on time.

“These are obvious skills people need in every industry” said Guadalupe, “and we want to make sure our trainers are held to the highest standards.”

Guadalupe’s journey from prisoner to nonprofit entrepreneur came about in part from his own interest in fitness. Convicted at 23 for selling drugs, he served 10 years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, NJ.

When he entered prison, he weighed 280 pounds. After a friend casually remarked that he looked like a “glazed honeybun,” Guadalupe got what amounted to a wakeup call.

He began working out in the facility, and he soon not only lost weight but gained self-confidence. At the same time, he discovered a talent for training others. By the time he was released, he was running the weight room in the prison gym.

That helped him find a job after release at a health club in the Union Square area of Manhattan, and eventually propelled him into his own personal training business. But he also realized he had valuable skills that he could offer to those like him.

Along with a group of friends, all “returning citizens,” he put together the nonprofit “A Second U” with money pooled from their earnings as personal trainers.

Guadalupe soon had more participants interested in personal fitness careers than he could handle on his own.

“At first, I didn’t have much of a life,” he recalled. “But the vision meant everything to me.”

As his clientele increased, he moved to the CompleteBody gym, which caters to independent trainers.

To recruit both trainers and participants, he began visiting halfway houses, federal probation offices, and job fairs for the formerly incarcerated to recruit trainers—and the opportunity offered at A Second U began spreading through word of mouth.

See also: Former Incarcerees Find Hope—and Employers—at NYC ‘Second Chance’ Job Fair

Two-Step Screening

Recruits go through a two-step screening process to enter the program. The first interview is with Guadalupe and the second is with the entire team.

“We don’t want to put energy into people that aren’t coachable and don’t want to learn the system,” explained Rohan Hales, director of recruitment, adding the program often turns people away.

“If they don’t have the desire to really change or do something, then it’s a waste of his time and our time,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to be helped, regardless of whatever you offer them.”

If the individual is not right for the fitness industry, A Second U will refer them to other transitional programs.

A program similar to A Second U has been operating in Boston since 2010.

InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) trains formerly incarcerated youth identified as “high impact” (whom its website defines as “most likely to shoot or get shot at”) to become certified personal trainers.

According to the ICW website, 173 students have been through the program since it launched, and 56 students are currently in stage two or beyond of a four-stage process that covers “earning trust, building hope, social inclusion, and economic mobility.”

But the challenges facing graduates of ICW, A Second U, and other programs training the formerly incarcerated remain formidable.

One Boston-area firm would not let formerly incarcerated trainers from ICW work with their staff due to the high cost of insurance liability.

That, says Marilyn Oberhardt, a client at ICW, is “absurd.”

She points out that ICW carried its own insurance policy.

In an interview with The Crime Report, Oberhardt reflected on her relationship with the trainers.

“They are giving me incredible athletic support, and teaching me how to get the most out of my body, and I can help them with basic life stuff. That is the power of the relationship.”

Oberhardt noted that her formerly incarcerated trainers had missed out on life skills that she had taken for granted—such as shopping for a mattress.

She encouraged her son, a high school student, to get involved at the gym as well.

Is Transparency Important?

Another challenge is how transparent to be about trainers’ pasts.

In an interview with The Crime Report, Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW, says potential clients are told in a brief call about the background of their employees before joining the gym.

“A good part of that call is spent explaining our mission, the nature of our work as a nonprofit, to make sure everyone in our community is on the same page,” he said. “I believe in being upfront, instead of bringing together these two worlds blindly.”

Nevertheless, experts on re-entry differ on the extent to which a previous criminal record should be part of the discussion between prospective employers and employees.

“It’s controversial because some people might say ‘that’s in the past’ and shouldn’t be mentioned,” said Kimora, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who refers to herself by a single name.

“But in a personal training situation, it’s a very close, personal relationship. Women in particular might feel violated if they didn’t know.”

“If a client goes to someone and they find out later the person has a felony record, they might get scared and wonder why they weren’t told.”

Baz Dreisinger, founder of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, disagrees.

“It’s not relevant to the job at hand,” said Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World . “I don’t think they have to know that kind of personal information.”

“Training someone is not about being their best friend; there’s a professional boundary.”

Former A Second U graduate Craig Sweat says he believes clients “could care less about my previous incarceration.”

“All my clients want to do is train and lose weight,” he said. “Unless someone asks you, it’s not something you bring up as topic of conversation.”

Programs like A Second U and ICW occupy a special niche in programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

Although many barriers to employing the formerly incarcerated—such as boxes on employment applications that require applicants to list any former convictions—are dropping, there is still sensitivity about employing ex-prisoners in occupations that involve one-on-one personal contact.

Ironically, fitness and body conditioning are among the skills that can be easily transferred between prison and the outside world. With little else to occupy their time, many inmates find a safe place at the prison gym.

Weights at the CompleteBody gym. Photo by Megan Hadley

Craig Sweat says his behind-bars background was an attractive plus for some of his clients.

“Our training styles are way different than guys who haven’t been formerly incarcerated,” he said. “We understand the concept of the mechanics of how the body moves. So having that experience alone, and the different styles of training, makes it a little easier for me to get clients.”

That doesn’t remove the need to develop in-prison education and job programs that can help a prisoner learn the skills and self-confidence to adjust to life on the outside, according to Steve Lathrop, a former Nebraska state senator, who served as chairman of the special corrections committee in the Nebraska legislature.

“They are more likely to stay out of trouble and not re-offend, than people who are released with no programming and no new skills,” Lathrop said in an interview.

Still, the highest barrier of all may be the stereotyped thinking that prevents prisoners from getting jobs once they are released.

Toney Earl, Jr. of M.A.D.E. Transitions says popular media help perpetuate stereotypes like “once a criminal always a criminal,” and “the limited thinking that a person is unlikely to change.”

“If you don’t have any encounters with someone formerly incarcerated, your perception is limited to your own personal experiences,” said Earl.

Earl, who is formerly incarcerated, said when he speaks to groups, he is always viewed as the exception, not the rule.

“They can’t envision me being in prison because of the way I present myself,” he said. “If I had some tattoos and do-rag they would’ve had an easier time coming to that conclusion.”

According to Earl, businesses lose the chance to benefit from the energy, resourcefulness and perspectives of a large group of Americans when they discriminate against the formerly incarcerated.

“From a legal perspective, if the nature of the crime has nothing to do with the position the individual is applying for, that should not be a determining factor whether they are or are not eligible for an opportunity with your company,” he said.

However, by definition, personal training adds a special complication to the employer-employee relationship.

“We have had responses in the past like ‘why would I want to train with someone convicted of a crime?’ ” said Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW.

“(But) if you can change people’s viewpoints, they often become our most passionate advocates.”

“We haven’t had one person leave the gym because of the work we do,” he said.

“We actually have people who otherwise would not engage in a for-profit fitness service staying with us for long periods of time because they are so passionate about the mission.”

Data collected by InnerCity Weightlifting suggests that personal training offers a successful path to resuming normal lives for individuals who have been imprisoned.

Some 78 percent of students who completed ICW’s full program avoided re-incarceration, according to the organization’s figures.

Hector Guadalupe concedes that some barriers to certification as a personal trainer will always be hard to overcome.

“In this industry, it would be hard for a sex offender to get past the national credited certification companies because it’s 70 percent-dominated by women,” he said.

Programs like A Second U and ICW represent a major step forward in exploding misleading perceptions about the formerly incarcerated, but there is still a long way to go, according to John Jay’s Kimora.

“This country is not where it needs to be when it comes to understanding and having compassion towards people who have been formerly incarcerated,” she said.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


How Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated Helps Rebuild Lives—and Communities

Many states are making it possible for individuals released from prison to find decent jobs, but more work needs to be done to give them a “fair chance” at turning the skills they learned behind bars into employment opportunities, the Smart on Crime forum was told Tuesday.

“When you sentence someone, do you sentence them to 10 years plus one year of unemployment? Or 10 years plus three years of unemployment?”

Nena Walker-Staley, Assistant Deputy Director of Programs and Reentry at the South Carolina Department of Corrections, raised the question during the opening day of the “Smart on Crime” innovations conference held at John Jay College Tuesday.

Despite having done their time, many incarcerated men and women struggle to find a job after they leave prison, Walker-Staley said at a panel entitled “Fair Chance Hiring.”

“When they come out, the barriers they face are the businesses that won’t hire them” she said.

But it’s not because they don’t have the necessary skills to succeed.

“They learn all kinds of skills inside,” Walker-Staley noted.  “When I look at these hardwood floors I know our guys scraped hardwood floors. They make furniture. They do welding. They run the asphalt machines that make our highways better.

“We work them inside, but when it’s time to go home, they’re rejected.”

She cited businesses such as Greyston Social Enterprise , which specifically hire formerly incarcerated men and women to end this cycle of rejection.

According to Walker-Staley, they have an open-hiring initiative, stating in effect that, “anyone who comes to our bakery is given the chance to work, no questions asked.”


Workers at Greyston Social Enterprise. Photo by Dion Shay courtesy Greyston

External Affairs Jonathan Halperin, who heads Greyston’s external affairs department, said the company’s goal is to create not just thriving businesses, but thriving communities.

“If we are not dealing with creating jobs for the formerly incarcerated, as businesses we will struggle because the communities will struggle,” he said.

“There is now a more robust dialogue about the role of business innovation and how that can drive social inclusion.”

Even if federal support isn’t forthcoming, states can create employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated population, the conference was told.

New York’s Fair Chance Act, passed in October of 2015, mandates that businesses owners cannot ask about the criminal record of a job applicant before making an offer.

That allows applicants to be judged by their qualifications and not their previous criminal history. If after a job offer is made, employers want to revoke their decision, they must explain why.

Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR

Some 287 organizations in the state signed a pledge committing them to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds.

“But there was no accountability in the pledge,” observed Genevieve Martin, Executive Director at Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon-based company established to provide employment for the formerly incarcerated.

“There isn’t a body that is able to usher it forward and do more with it”

That leaves the question “what does it means to have an open hiring system, or a fair chance hiring system?” unclear, said Martin.

“Simply, we need a completely new set of recruiting techniques” Martin noted.

The new techniques must challenge your perception, your gut feeling, about hiring someone with a criminal record, she said.

“Once we challenge the perception on an individual level, then we can start to challenge our professional beliefs,” she said.

It’s all about the dignity of work, said Greyston’s Halperin.

“If anyone wants a job and is willing to work,” Halperin said. “He or she should be afforded the opportunity to experience the dignity of work.”

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Returning Inmates Need “A Place to Call Home:” Study

Safe and affordable housing for formerly incarcerated individuals is essential to breaking the cycle of homelessness and recidivism that prevents them from rebuilding their lives as productive citizens, according to a report released Tuesday by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College.

Safe and affordable housing for formerly incarcerated individuals is essential to breaking the “cycle” of homelessness and recidivism that prevents them from rebuilding their lives as productive citizens, according to a report issued Tuesday.

“People who have paid their debt to society should have the chance to reunify with their families and have a home where children can visit or live,” said the report, released by the Prisoner Reentry Institute of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“Providing a true home for people with criminal justice histories helps families get back together, stay together, and provide support to each other.”

But too often, the report noted, housing discrimination in the private market and regulations that prevent them from living in public housing drive returning inmates to the streets, or to unsafe and overcrowded shelters.

“People living in such (shelters) often have no refrigerator where they can store fresh food,” said the report, entitled A Place to Call Home.

“They can’t hang their clothes in closets in preparation for job interviews or work. They have no secure space to keep their valuables, photographs, or family keepsakes. They have no permanent address for job or school applications.

“Rather than providing the basis for success, these types of shelter more often lead to a cycle of homelessness and repeated jail or prison stays.”

The report was based in part on a day-long conference held last year at John Jay College, co-hosted by the Prisoner Reentry Institute, The Fortune Society, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, and the Supportive Housing Network of New York.

Carl Dukes. Photo courtesy Prisoner Reentry Institute

Carl Dukes, one former inmate quoted in the report, recounted how after being released from prison in New York State after 31 years behind bars, he found himself homeless for several weeks.

“I was forced to carry my heavy bag between three different shelters, despite having recently undergone spinal surgery.”

Dukes said finding housing through New York’s Fortune Society offered him a “safe place to readjust to life in the community.”

According to the report, the lack of housing is one of the critical barriers to successful reentry for the millions of individuals who leave jail or prison in the U.S. every year.

Recommendations to policymakers included:

  • Eliminating landlord discrimination;
  • Reforming policies that exclude public housing tenants after an arrest or conviction;
  • Establishing “creative partnerships” that would enable the development of a wide spectrum of housing that meets the different needs of returning inmates;
  • Strengthening “in-reach” programs at correctional facilities to identify and assess the housing needs of inmates before they are released.

The report also called for more support for “ban the box” initiatives that eliminate questions on previous criminal history from employment applications forms.

“Housing is a fundamental human need that lays the foundation for success in every aspect of our lives,” said the report.

“When we have a home, we have a safe space to lay our head at night, store our personal belongings, a kitchen where we can cook our meals, and a launch pad from which we can seek jobs, attend school, and connect with our friends and family”

Similarly, the report added, “people with past involvement in the justice system need housing in order to reconstruct their lives….as they look for a home, however, they find the doors to housing closed at every turn. “

Helping them find safe, affordable and supportive housing “furthers the shared values that Americans have held dear since the founding of this country,” the report said.

For a press release on the report, please click here. The full report is available here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Executive editor Stephen Handelman. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Nevada’s New Record-Sealing Law: ‘One of Broadest’ in U.S.

A forthcoming law to seal some felony records five years after probation puts Nevada in the front ranks of the 44 states and territories that employ similar approaches to smooth ex-offenders’ path back to society.

Nevada is the kind of place where a lot of people end up needing a second chance.

It’s a state where the booms and busts of the gaming industry have led many into poverty, drug abuse, even jail time. So, as it slowly recovers from the 2008 recession, legislators have come together to transform Nevada into a place where people can leave past indiscretions behind and reclaim their lives.

An important move in that direction will happen October 1, when a new state law called AB 327 goes into effect.

The law, which allows people to get their criminal records sealed much more quickly than they ever could before, is called by some justice advocates one of the most sweeping state efforts to seal records of the criminally convicted, and ease their re-entry to post-prison life.

It’s life-changing news for 33-year-old Tara Trificana from Reno, who made some big mistakes in her early 20s.

That’s when, addicted to crystal meth, she stole a blank check from her mom, wrote it out for $400, and cashed it. The prosecutor charged her with felony theft and conspiracy to commit grand larceny, which is a gross misdemeanor.

Trificana served three years behind bars. She got out and got clean in 2009. But since then, she says, it’s been all but impossible to get back on her feet.

“Living with a felony and a gross misdemeanor is hellacious,” she says, “Employers look at you a different way. In 2015, I got hired and fired from 14 different jobs.”

Under the old law, she would have had to wait 15 years to get her felony record sealed. Under AB 327, however, people who’ve stayed on the straight and narrow for five years after prison and probation can apply for sealing. The law also cuts the length of good-behavior time required to seal misdemeanor criminal records from two years to one.

Trificana’s misdemeanor was sealed in 2012 under the old law—and she is now working to get her felony sealed, with the help of Nevada Legal Services, a nonprofit that offers free legal advice to low-income clients.

“Of course, this is incredibly important for people who are looking for work, as many, many companies nowadays run background checks,” says Rita Greggio, Trificana’s attorney. “And people with even minor misdemeanor records have an incredibly hard time finding employment.”

Margaret Love, executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, calls AB 327 not only a significant expansion of existing Nevada law, but “one of the broadest record-closing laws in the country.”

“Most states do not allow sealing or expungement of adult felony convictions,” said Love, whose Washington D.C.-based nonprofit tracks legal restrictions imposed on individuals with a criminal record across the nation. “

The issue has won bipartisan support in Nevada. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval quietly signed AB 327 in June, after it passed the state legislature— a body that flipped from red to blue in the last election.

The legislation now puts Nevada in the front ranks of the 44 states and territories which have moved to seal records.

Puerto Rico Leads the Pack

The leader so far is Puerto Rico.

If a Puerto Rican judge decides that an individual has been adequately rehabilitated, that person’s crime, including violent felonies, can be sealed anywhere from six months to five years after his or her prison sentence is completed.

As another example, California automatically destroys adults’ records after seven years once they’ve received a certificate of rehabilitation from the court.

On the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina’s waiting period is 15 years; while Alabama, Alaska and Georgia will not expunge or seal any adult convictions.

The benefits of record sealing vary widely by state. But, in Nevada, sealing means the conviction is treated as if it never existed. Thus, a formerly incarcerated person doesn’t have to mention any sealed conviction when applying for jobs, federal student loans, welfare, rent-subsidized housing and other benefits or opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Nevadans have a criminal record. But it is unclear how many people might benefit from the law, because the state does not track how many citizens maintain clean records after completing their sentences, broken down by types of crimes.

Under the new law, anyone with a spotless post-conviction misdemeanor record can apply to the court to get it sealed one year after the sentence and probation are complete.

For certain Category B felonies, which include assault, identity theft and some drug crimes, individuals can apply to have their records sealed after five years with no new convictions.

The process also requires that there be no opposition from the prosecuting office or arresting agency that first handled the offense. If there is opposition, the judge must hold a hearing and take evidence from both sides.

Greggio said that, in her experience, judges issue an order to seal the case if there is no opposition.

Though criminal records can be sealed in Nevada, they are not destroyed and can still be accessed by the Gaming Board, which regulates the casinos and their employees. Also, judges can order that records be unsealed, but they tend to do so only in cases where the person with the sealed record asks that the case be reopened, usually to recover lost records.

The statute also allows a prosecutor to request a record be unsealed in order to contact someone involved in the prior case if there is newly discovered evidence, or if the person has been arrested for the same or similar offense, and is likely to stand trial.

However, a Nevada prosecutor would only know about the sealed record if he or she dealt with the individual in the past.

Rules on sealing records and expungement vary by state. The Collateral Consequences Resource Center maintains state-by-state details on those rules.

Attorney Greggio says the records for some types of crimes can never be sealed in Nevada, such as a DUI with grave bodily injury, and certain sex crimes. However, she adds, most of her clients have been prosecuted for relatively minor offenses.

“The bulk of what we see is small, misdemeanor petty crimes, possession of drug paraphernalia, things like that. Those are very commonly and very easily sealed.”

Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, says Nevada’s new approach is generous.

“Overall it is consistent with a trend to make sealing more widely available but I would say it is on the progressive end of that trend in terms of the amount of time that you have to wait,” she said in an interview.

Opportunities Denied

Dietrich adds that sealing records counters the discrimination against the formerly justice-involved that is rampant among landlords and employers across the country.

“Sealing takes it out of the hands of those people to do the right thing and follow the law,” she said. “We regularly see people who have cases that are not even convictions, cases that were dropped, and they’re still being denied the opportunity to get jobs just because they were once arrested.”

According to Erica Webster, Communications and Policy Analyst at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in California, a felony conviction can hamper a person’s ability to become a contributing member of society for many years, reinforcing the cycle of poverty.

“And it’s not just jobs,” she said. “Some state licenses require you not have a felony conviction. If you’re trying to go back to college and you need a student loan there can be ramifications.

“You’re not eligible for affordable housing and you can jeopardize a family member’s section 8 housing by living with them, even if they have a completely clean record.”

So-called “ban the box” laws are the next wave of legislation aimed at smoothing the path back into society. Last year, California removed the box on state and county job applications that asks if a person has ever been convicted of a felony. Employers are still free to ask about it during a job interview, but the idea is to get employers to give the applicant a chance to explain.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a similar measure, AB 384, on the same day he signed the record-sealing bill, which Trificana applauds. “Now I’m working, and I’ve moved into my own place,” she said. “It’s a dream come true. These laws are a real blessing.”

Suzanne Potter

She earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Brookline College in Phoenix and is now pursuing a bachelor’s in psychology at Ottawa University, also in Arizona. She says she wants to give back to the community once she graduates.

“With the new law I am changing my course and want to have a career helping ex-felons rehabilitate into society when they come out of prison.”

Suzanne Potter runs the Nevada News Services arm of Public News Service, a small nonprofit. She welcomes comments from readers.