Darryl E. Owens: Second chances start with taking a second look past prison stripes

People remember President George W. Bush for his often-fractured way with words. Wordsmiths immortalized the presidential malapropism machine with his own category of flubs — “Bushisms.”

True, his tongue often may have been in overdrive as his brain shifted gears. On one occasion, however, Bush nailed it:

“America is the land of the second chance — and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

That’s how it should work. Yet, one pesky job application question — “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” — often carves potholes in the path forward.

In Florida — a state that recently warehoused a six-figure prison population — that’s a lot of bad road.

In studies of city employment audits, Harvard sociologist Devah Pager found a criminal record slashes in half the chances that an employer will call back.

That’s a massive problem considering the masses tarred with felony records. Some 70 million to 100 million Americans have served time; each year some 600,000 job seekers exit state and federal prisons.

Forget concealing that ignominy from employers. A recent study from HireRight, a pre-employment screening firm, found 73 percent of small businesses now conduct background checks.

That’s why President Barack Obama’s signature last week on a proposed rule to bar federal agencies from asking job seekers about their criminal past pending a conditional job offer would be a long-needed pacesetter — one that Florida must emulate to bolster economic opportunity, child welfare and public safety.

Obama wants to “ban the box,” the slogan of a campaign gaining national steam that encourages postponing asking the dreaded question until later in the hiring process.

“There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path,” Obama said last November.

Indeed, 23 states, more than 100 cities and counties, and myriad businesses embrace the concept.

Florida’s response: largely, meh.

Finding a way forward that better reweaves Floridians with criminal records into the community fabric with solid, good-paying jobs should muster urgency in what’s become the Hoosegow State.

Florida now locks up 98,653 inmates in 55 state prisons. Another 107,118 offenders live under community supervision.

Every year, tens of thousands are sprung from prison. In fiscal year 2014-15, 32,668 inmates were released from Florida prisons with a slim chance at leveraging skills, trades and education gleaned in prison programs.

Last year, a New York Times/CBS/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that men with criminal records comprise 34 percent of jobless men ages 25 to 54.

In Florida, the box on job applications isn’t the only thing that’s problematic. A new report from Alliance for a Just Society, “Jobs After Jail: Ending the Prison to Poverty Pipeline,” noted 168 mandatory restrictions “make it nearly impossible” for individuals with “conviction records, to find good paying employment.”

Unemployment creates poverty and ultimately recidivism.

Not only is the ex-con caught in a catch-22.

As a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” notes that kids become innocent accessories when a parent’s job prospects dry up because of a criminal record. The report recommends that states expand “ban-the-box” policies.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry gets it: “I am committed to supporting efforts that reduce recidivism rates and create environments that improve the lives and communities of citizens seeking re-entry into society,” he said in a statement in advance of National Re-entry Week.

So does Anthony James, who owns Kustom Sounds Studio in Longwood, Fla. and hires ex-cons.

“Small-business owners like me … see the vicious cycle of incarceration and poverty in our communities,” he says. “We see the effects of a flawed justice system and employment discrimination on our revenue sheets.”

Banning the box doesn’t bar employers from due diligence, conducting background checks, or even asking about the applicant’s record. It only postpones the ask until after an employer has considered a jobseeker’s credentials before contemplating the weight of a conviction.

During the past legislative session, Senate Bill 448, a ban-the-box measure for public employers, failed. However, in the land of second chances, Florida still can do the prudent thing and afford hundreds of thousands of Floridians seeking redemption unbiased access to the path to a better life Bush so fluently described.


Former award-winning Orlando Sentinel columnist Darryl E. Owens now serves as director of communication at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., the first higher education institution accredited to award bachelor’s degrees exclusively to students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and other learning differences. Views expressed are his own. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a Tampa Bay-area journalist, editor and writer. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government, entertainment reviews, marketing and an advice column. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in Tampa with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached on Twitter @PhilAmmann or at [email protected].


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