Opportunity for all Citizens

AUSTIN – A monumental civil rights victory is giving convicted felons new hope in searching for a career.

The Second Chance Democrats, an advocacy group for convicted felons, worked with Austin City Council member Greg Casar to pass the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance. The ordinance, passed March 24 in a 7-2 vote, removes the question of criminal history on job applications city-wide.

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Council Members hear testimony before voting on the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance. Photo by Andrew Blanton

The group urges members of the community to raise awareness about the social and legal issues felons face.

“We created this so that we could have something that included voices in the community that have been traditionally excluded,” Second Chance Democrats Chair Jacqueline Conn said about the formation of the group.

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*Rape convictions are not included in the Texas Department of Public Safety data. A new classification system from the FBI has caused the delay. 

Conn said the group’s main focus is demanding equal rights for all members of the community.

Having employers make a conditional offer for a position before looking into an applicant’s criminal background can open up a lot of doors for previously incarcerated individuals, Conn said.

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Second Chance Democrats member Jimmy Preston at Austin City Hall. Photo by Andrew Blanton

Darwin Hamilton, a soft-spoken man who grew up in East Austin, has had to overcome many obstacles because of his criminal background. Hamilton is the treasurer for the Second Chance Democrats.

“Most of us are formerly incarcerated,” Hamilton said about the group that was formed in the fall of 2015.

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*Rape convictions are not included in the Texas Department of Public Safety data. A new classification system from the FBI has caused the delay. 

Hamilton said that the box on job applications that indicates whether a potential employee is a convicted felon is a huge road block for formerly incarcerated citizens. Members of the group typically refer to the ordinance as “banning the box.”

The city of Austin, as well as Travis County, has already removed the question from their job applications. Now the ordinance requires private companies to adopt the practice.

“It gives someone an opportunity to get to be known,” Hamilton said. “(Human resource) managers are layman’s to the criminal justice system, and so they see the box checked and it’s just a blanket ban.”

Hamilton said that even the city of Austin usually does not hire convicted felons for professional or administrative positions.

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A supporter of the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance at Austin City Hall. Photo by Andrew Blanton

Morgan Hoke, University of Texas at Austin engineering major and Second Chance Democrats member, has worked diligently to start a new life after serving time in a correctional facility for bank robberies.

“It’s been incredibly hard,” Hoke said. “It seems like it’s never ending, you know? There’s always another road block that comes in.”

“When I first got out, I applied to a bunch of different places. I was in a halfway house for six months and they help you find a job and a place to live,” Hoke said.

But the conviction was visible on job applications, even though she seemed to do well in interviews.

Hoke decided to keep her record secret for one application. “I didn’t check the box one time, and I got the job.”

She worked at the company for several months, but another employee discovered her background through an Internet search.

Morgan Hoke was given the “Ponytail Bandit” nickname from the media. Video by the Associated Press. 

“Somebody at the company had Googled my name and saw me,” Hoke said. She was taken to the human resources department and fired.

“It’s going to have to be a fight in Austin,” Conn said of changing the public’s perception on people’s criminal history. A similar ordinance was passed in Seattle in 2013 called the Fair Chance Employment Ordinance that requires employers to have a “legitimate business reason to deny a job based on a conviction record,” and “an opportunity for an applicant or employee to explain or correct criminal history information.”

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Residents hear testimony on the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance at Austin City Hall. Photo by Andrew Blanton

Susanne Yashewski gave testimony during the City Council meeting, representing the Texas Credit Union Association and the troubles they face when interviewing potential employees that have a criminal background. Their group represents 5500 credit unions in the state of Texas.

“It is our job to protect our member-owners. Careful staffing is vital to this mission as our staff has access to personal private information such as Social Security numbers and direct access to money in accounts,” Yashewski said. “Although the proposed ordinance is well intentioned, we regret that we cannot support it at this time as drafted, because it imposes unnecessary costs and burdens on businesses.”

State and federal regulations often prohibit convicted felons from obtaining licenses in many industries including architecture, real estate and accounting.

“We are prohibited by federal law in many instances from hiring persons with certain convictions,” Yashewski said. “Waiting until the end of the hiring process to run a criminal background check certainly would just delay the inevitable.”

When many convicted felons are released on parole, they are placed into a halfway house system for assistance. These halfway houses are only temporary, and many rental properties refuse to sign leases with formerly incarcerated individuals.

“A lot of landlords won’t even rent to you,” Hamilton said, “Similar discrimination just like the jobs.”

Lauren Johnson, a convicted felon, was at Austin City Hall to give testimony to the City Council in support of the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance.

“I’ve been involved in the stakeholder process pretty much since the beginning, and I think that it’s an important first step,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s the end all be all, but it’s got the potential to really change not only lives now, but also to give the other governing agencies the push they need to be able to do this in other cities across the south.”

Johnson said she was lucky to have a support system that gave her the time to find a career after she was released from incarceration.

“There are millions of people that don’t have that,” Johnson said, “and what about them?”

Finding a low-entry-service job is sometimes the only employment convicted felons are able to find, Johnson said.

Employers often do not even attempt to see the person behind the conviction record, Johnson said, and this ordinance creates an essential opportunity for convicted felons in the interview process.

“Human beings are inherently built to grow and learn and change and nobody is the same person they were five years ago or ten years ago,” Johnson said. “Being able to step outside of that, the idea that somebody that got caught has to wear a label and deal with lifetime consequences, it’s necessary to move away from that.”

 

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