Activist protests unequal employment for felons
SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — One question really shook Felicia Smith during her second job interview after serving 12 and a half years in prison.
“How do we know you’re not going to go back to what you went to prison for?”
Smith told the employer she made a mistake that cost her gravely. She missed years of her daughter’s life. She left her child at 17 months old and didn’t come home until she was 14. It didn’t take long being incarcerated on a non-violent, drug conviction to deter her from making the same mistake again.
Smith was granted clemency on former President Barrack Obama’s last day in office. But she’s still faced challenges transitioning back into the community.
She was released in 2017 and spent six months searching for a job when she got out. She was required to apply for jobs every day of her first month living in a halfway house. She filled out application after application. No one called.
“No one was really willing to hire me, even though they had hiring signs on the door,” she said.
According to a July 2018 article from Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general United States population. Evidence shows that having a record reduces employer callback rates by 50%, Prison Policy Initiative reports.
Last year, formerly incarcerated people were unemployed at a rate of more than 27% — exceeding the highest level of unemployment ever recorded in the U.S. The rate was 24.9% during the Great Depression.
September 2017, Smith got her first paying job at a sweet potato plant. After only two years of being out, Smith is an organizer with the Shreveport Chapter of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people.
Smith is one of the people an activist advocated for Monday. Wearing an orange prison uniform, the activist chained himself to a pole across the street from Caddo Parish Court House for at least five hours. DeAveon Benjamin protested for equal employment opportunities for felons.
Benjamin said he hoped his peaceful demonstration would draw the attention of lawmakers. Unequal employment contributes to violence in the black community, he said.
Job discrimination against felons happens in a number of ways. Workplaces that require employees to obtain state licenses would remove someone with a felony from the applicant pool. Getting licenses often requires a background check.
Due to racially disproportionate incarceration rates, employers who discriminate against people with criminal records could be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from racial discrimination. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals due to race, religion, color, nationality or another protected basis.
A campaign called Ban the Box is aimed at removing the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record from employment applications. The campaign pushes employers to choose candidates based on qualifications rather than past convictions.
More than 45 cities and counties, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco removed the question about conviction history from applications, according to the Ban the Box website.
The Times asked Timothy Magner, President of the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, whether the Chamber would support banning the question about previous convictions on applications. He said it depends on the nature of the business.
“You have to look at the nature of the work, the nature of the business and the nature of the crime and then see how those line up,” Magner said.
A report from the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections said from 2016 to 2018 the jail population decreased because more individuals were made eligible for work release programs. Work release programs allow low-risk inmates to work outside the prison and return when their shift is complete. Magner emphasized the importance of these types of programs that provide convicted felons with job training skills.
″. . . so folks don’t just have entry level skills but higher level skills so they can get into jobs that have career potential,” he said.
Magner said he testified at committee hearings in support of the Justice Reinvestment bills that were implemented in 2017. Along with reducing recidivism and caseloads for parole officers, the legislation was aimed at reducing the prison population.
In 2017, Louisiana lead the nation in imprisonment, with a rate nearly double the national average. The total prison population dropped by 7.6% the first quarter of 2018.
Curtis Davis, who served 26 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary, started advocating for the Justice Reinvestment Act when he was released in 2016.
“There has always been a stigma attached to being an ex-convict. The assumption is that we are all morally corrupt and a risk as employees,” Davis said.
Davis talked about pushing for policy that would provide tax incentives to businesses that hire convicted felons. Policy reform such as this would reduce recidivism rates because most crimes are committed by people trying to survive, he said.
“If you don’t have a job, you steal to eat,” Davis said.
One in three inmates released from prison returned there within three years, according to the June 2018 report from the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections.
Magner, Benjamin and Smith aren’t the only Shreveport locals advocating for felon employment opportunities. On Monday, Beatricious Foster of Save Our Sons Drop the Guns, and Amaelie Roberson of ASAP Shreveport, gathered 94 signatures in support of equal employment opportunities for felons. Their goal is to gain 3,000 signatures to present the petition to the mayor.
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com