I have spent 18 years in criminal justice reform working with children being tried as adults as well as young men and women struggling to make a successful transition from prison back into the community. And what I know to be true, is that we are all better than our worst mistake…as one of my mentors Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries continues to remind me. We have all had second, third and sometimes tenth chances throughout our lives and careers. But not everyone has. I have been working with industries and companies to change the way we see and treat people with a criminal record. Having honest conversations about what it takes to hire a potential employee to whom you offered a job…but changed your mind when you receive the results from a background check.
Chris is a perfect example. He interviewed for a job at an animation studio. His resume was solid: A.A. in Sociology, B.A. in Psychology and 3 years of solid employment history. His art portfolio impressive: graphic novel and writing samples waiting for someone to see the potential of an extremely creative, brilliant man. He was offered the position…contingent upon a background check. Three weeks later he received a phone call about a list of misdemeanor charges and an 18 year old felony conviction that came back in the report. The hiring executive was sure there must be a mistake. There was. The misdemeanor charges were not his. Looking at the dates, he was in prison at the age of 16 for the felony conviction, so they couldn’t be him. Not exactly the “clarification” they were hoping for.
Chris and I met with the HR department and hiring executives and navigating an honest conversation, we addressed mutual concerns. And then, without making Chris feel like he was at another parole board hearing, we got to the heart of the issue with one question, “What have you learned about yourself in the past 18 years that you want us know?”
Without hesitation and being brutally candid, Chris shared a bit about his childhood, how he grew up talking to heroin addicts in the back alley behind his apartment. “They were the only adults that talked to me.” Sitting alone on streets curbs making up stories about families walking by, wishing his life could be more like theirs. Raised by his grandparents by the age of 8, whom although they loved him, they couldn’t get a handle on the pain he was harboring. The streets called him. The gang attracted him. Arrested at least 8 times between the ages of 12 and 16, Chris was well on his way to prison. At 16 he was charged as an adult for a violent felony and sentenced to 20 years to life.
His first day on the yard the guards pulled him aside, recognizing he was a small 16 year old, and strongly reminded him, “If you hear us yell ‘get down’…GET DOWN. Or they’ll shoot you from the tower.” Chris went on to talk about the reading, writing and education he immersed himself in while still in prison. Finally pursuing the things he really cared about in life. Doing something good. He learned how important art was as his outlet, keeping him sane and providing income as he drew portraits of inmate’s loved ones or designed personal greeting cards for them to send home. How his love of DC comics had been his safe place. He learned that this skill is something he’s been working on most of his life, and that doing something positive not only affected his life, but may be able to affect the life of another kid with similar experiences. The studio took a chance and hired him.
Here are some facts:
70 million people in this country have a criminal record. That’s about 1 in 4 people.
2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States…90% of them will return home.
And the biggest obstacle to their maintaining a stable environment. . .A JOB.
In California we have “banned the box”. Which is a step in the right direction. But if we’re not going to work toward hiring people…despite their worst mistake, then we are stalled in the space of veiled “diversity” and not “inclusion”. We’ll interview you, but we still won’t hire you. Companies both large and small are getting on board to help shift this dynamic, but they don’t always know how to go about it. There are federal and state tax incentives for employers and evidence demonstrating the impact giving people a chance has on community safety and the reduction in the public cost for incarceration.
This issue is a microcosm of many other divisive issues we are facing in our communities. We need to be willing to step out of our individual comfort zones, into the gray area of the unknown and make an effort to bridge the gap with people whose background or culture we don’t understand. Our unwillingness to go there limits us from being able to truly create inclusive work environments that enrich our companies with broader ideas, new approaches, a stronger community…and better outcomes.
As a founding executive of a start-up non-profit, I took a staff of 4 and successfully built it into a staff of 28 with more than half of our employees having a criminal record….on purpose. We approached our hiring practices with a few questions in mind:
- What do we need to know about who a candidate is today, in order to feel confident in hiring them?
- What systems do we have or can we put in place to offer an employee a fair opportunity to prove themselves and feel supported in the workplace?
Opening our doors to a new pool of potential employees opens up the possibility of discovering a uniquely gifted individual …We can’t throw that away.