For the past fifteen years, Hawk Aavan Jonsson has been obsessed with becoming a firefighter. After graduating from a fire academy, he became a member of a volunteer firefighting team, began teaching, and was eventually promoted to chief of the department. He earned an EMT license and seventeen other first-responder certifications. A figurine of a firefighter helping a child sits next to his bed, as do a stack of firefighting equipment and textbooks. He lives across the street from a fire department. Even his girlfriend is a firefighter.
So, in 2006, when he made it to the last round in the notoriously competitive application process for the Oakland Fire Department, Jonsson thought he was finally achieving his dream. But it turned out that no amount of experience was going to be enough, because the only thing on his résumé that mattered was the small box: "prior felony conviction."
It didn't matter that Jonsson had been out of prison for fifteen years and had lived a straight life. He was turned down because of his criminal past, which continues to haunt him.
Since his release from prison in 1996, Jonsson says he has never been able to get a job that paid more than $23,000 a year. "Those positions always had a glass ceiling of pay and I was never able to get higher than I did at any one job," he said. "The stigma of my past is something that keeps holding me up, and I'm unable to do the things I want to do in my life, like have a family, children."
The forty-year-old Oakland resident is one of thousands of ex-convicts in California who struggle to find financial stability after incarceration. The problem is particularly magnified in Oakland, which has a large population of ex-felons and a high unemployment rate. The fact that even Jonsson can't catch a break, despite actively trying to succeed and not reoffending since being released, is indicative of how challenging the situation is.
"He was a great leader and great teacher to the other volunteers," said Jeffrey Matthews, chief of the Bloomfield Volunteer Fire Department and a former colleague of Jonsson's. "He's passionate about his work and he's passionate about turning his life around. They call it the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and Hawk Jonsson is this shining example of what prisoners can come out of prison like. Why they don't choose to use him as a success story just dumbfounds me."
Rejected by the Oakland Fire Department, Jonsson believes his last hope is to earn what's called a certificate of rehabilitation. Issued by a superior court judge, the document doesn't erase a person's record, but it declares them "rehabilitated."
No statistics are available on how attaining a certificate of rehabilitation improves one's employment odds or salary, but Jonsson is willing to try his luck. Even though the certificate's value is questionable, he doesn't know what else to do.
Jonsson was born in Oakland in 1969. He doesn't reveal much about his childhood other than the fact that he was raised by a mother he admires. His real father, however, was not in the picture, but an abusive stepfather was. Whatever happened at home led him to leave for Southern California after high school in 1988. He went to diving school, but with new freedom came partying. At first, he was only smoking marijuana. But one night he says he unknowingly used pot laced with cocaine.
Soon he was pawning every possession he could for the new, top priority in his life —crack cocaine. Then he ran out of everything he had. So he joined a group of people faced with the same addiction and ended up robbing two homes and pawning off the stolen goods. After serving two years in jail for the crime, he got out and this time got hooked on meth. In 1992, police eventually caught him on the street with the drug, strung out of his mind, as Jonsson recalls. For a moment, prosecutors threatened him with the three strikes law that could put him in prison for life, but then settled on a sentence of seven years, which was eventually reduced to four with good behavior.
His exposure to firefighting came while he was serving time. During his last year of prison, he battled a wildfire at Konocti Conservation Camp, a job training camp jointly operated by the California Department of Corrections and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was there that it became clear to him: Firefighting was his calling.
"That last year of incarceration changed everything for me," Jonsson recalled. "It gave me a whole new sense of purpose in my life that I'd never had before."
Since that time, Jonsson says he has become a completely different person. With the help of family and a Native American brotherhood, he explored some of the internal reasons why he started doing drugs. He saved money from minimum-wage jobs and student loans in order to attend college and a fire academy.
But life wasn't easy. Without a car, Jonsson was forced to bike as much as fifteen miles to and from work. In 2003, he was hit by a car and had to have surgery on both legs, as well as his shoulder and elbow.
Because he had no health insurance, Jonsson had to wait two years for those operations. In the meantime, he still had to rely on the only kind of transportation and form of physical rehabilitation he could afford — his bike. So he got back on it.
Toni Landers, a friend and former Santa Rosa Community College roommate, said she remembers how much it inspired her to watch Jonsson pull himself together after the accident. "He's talked me through a lot of tough times because he's so good at keeping his mind on the right track no matter what happens," Landers said. "I'm always telling myself, 'If Hawk can do what he does all the time, then I can do this.'"
Jonsson's half-brother, Oakland Tribune Editor Martin Reynolds, says that even as he struggled to make ends meet, Jonsson took care of everyone in the family. Sometimes that meant planning a family barbecue or organizing an intervention for an uncle whose health was drastically declining.
"He wasn't some hardened guy even then," Reynolds said. "It's very upsetting to the families of ex-convicts who have loved ones who have done the work to take their place back in society but just can't get it."
Jonsson sees a career in emergency response as an opportunity to redeem himself through heroism. But the odds that the forty-year-old can be hired as a firefighter before his physical prime disappears have already dwindled to a slim chance. And it shrinks exponentially every year.
It's hard to quantify the long-term effects of barring ex-felons from all kinds of jobs. No government or private entity appears to keep employment statistics about them. But All of Us or None, a national advocacy group for the formerly incarcerated with a chapter in San Francisco, estimates that the unemployment rate among ex-felons is as high as 60 to 80 percent. The few who do get jobs usually have salaries similar to or worse than Jonsson's, according to the group. With few job options, many parolees reoffend. California has the nation's highest recidivism rate, at 70 percent.
In Oakland, which receives about 2,035 of the 3,500 parolees entering Alameda County every year, the unemployment rate has ballooned to nearly 20 percent — almost twice the national rate. It's even higher in East and West Oakland.
Making matters worse, employers punish ex-felons equally, no matter what their conviction or how long ago they served their time. Jonsson has to check the same felony conviction box on job applications as someone who just got out of prison. Yet a 2009 Carnegie Mellon study found that ex-convicts who stay clean for at least five years are no more likely to commit a crime again than the general population in their own age group. Most employers never know the difference, since looking at a background check isn't required in most of California, including Alameda County, with the exception of a few government jobs.
"It should be that if I do my time, I don't owe anyone anything more," said Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of All of Us or None. Nunn, who lives in East Palo Alto, has led national campaigns to ban the felony conviction box on job applications so that applicants are considered more thoroughly before being dismissed. "We're denying a whole lot of opportunity to people trying to turn their life around because when they get out of prison, we're telling them, 'Oh, by the way, your punishment lasts forever.'"
"Ban the box" laws — which force employers to look at an ex-felon's actual record instead of only a checked felony conviction box — might help ex-felons find better employment in the future. But so far, their popularity has been minimal. Massachusetts just joined Hawaii in banning the box on public and private job applications, but it doesn't look like California is close to doing the same.
Jonsson believes that obtaining a certificate of rehabilitation is the only thing left that could help him. That document, which is generally available to ex-felons who have served time in a California prison, can be especially helpful when an ex-felon is being reviewed for jobs in the health sector. And because fire departments are gradually making it mandatory or preferable to get an EMT certificate or paramedic license, obtaining the certificate is especially important for Jonsson. The certificate also may relieve some offenders from having to register as a sex offender.
But getting one isn't easy. It requires positive testimonials and a detailed investigation by the county district attorney's office. The process can often take longer than four months, and some ex-felons seek legal representation. Jonsson paid at least $2,500 for his lawyer.
The document is granted by a county superior court judge, who certifies that an ex-felon has kept his record clear of misdemeanors and felonies, and his life headed in the right direction for two to five years, depending on past convictions. Still, the document does not free recipients from the requirement of disclosing felony convictions to employers.
And judges don't hand them out lightly. Out of the more than 250 ex-felons who applied for the certificate of rehabilitation in Alameda County in the last year, only seven received them — a high number according to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Greg Dolge. The California Governor's office would not release numbers of how may have been granted statewide.
The certificate can become much more, though. Once granted, it's immediately forwarded to the governor's office for consideration of a full pardon. That gives ex-convicts full government security clearance and frees them from checking felony conviction boxes on job applications. Jonsson said he was told that a full pardon was the only way he'd be considered for a position within the Oakland Fire Department, but Daniel Berlante, a representative from Cal Fire, said fire departments throughout the state can use their discretion to accept applicants depending on their prior convictions.
In any case, what's clear is that earning back a respectable spot in society isn't easy. "Society can't afford to hold back people like Hawk," said his half-brother Reynolds. "He's the man who'll run into a burning building and save a life. Let him do that, put a fork in him, he's done. What do you do with someone like him? Just lock people into this cycle no matter what they do?"
After several years out of prison without reoffending, Jonsson believes he's rehabilitated. But Greg Dolge, deputy district attorney for Alameda County, isn't convinced.
Dolge's office coordinated an investigation and novel-length report concluding that Jonsson shouldn't be granted the certificate of rehabilitation. Though Jonsson legally qualifies for a certificate because he hasn't reoffended for more than five years, the law ultimately leaves it to the discretion of the state judicial system whether one will be granted.
After Dolge informed Jonsson earlier this year that he would not get the DA's recommendation for the certificate — despite his résumé, high GPA, and positive testimonies from friends, family, co-workers, and bosses — Jonsson hired a lawyer to fight Dolge's point of view.
Granted, Jonsson admits he isn't without his faults. They include driving without insurance twice and lying about his unemployment status. Dolge dwelled on the last count because he said it demonstrates Jonsson's dishonesty.
"Telling the truth is the minimum that's required on an application for the certificate of rehabilitation, and Hawk did not do that," Dolge said. "Applying for a certificate is very similar to applying for a job with a federal background check. If you apply for a job and lie on the application and don't get that job, do you blame that employer?"
Driving without car insurance is one of Jonsson's regrets. "I was working at a company for $11 an hour, and there were points where I couldn't keep it up, riding my bike 22 miles a day each way," Jonsson explained. "But I really was beyond my means driving. The cold hard fact was, I realized it's better to do public transportation until I can get something paying at least $15 an hour."
As for the second point, Jonsson says the truth is more complicated. He says that while working for a private paramedic company, he was called "nigger." Yet after he complained to his supervisor, he was demoted from medic to driver, and instead negotiated a lay-off with his employer. But when he applied for unemployment benefits, he found out that his employer told the Employment Development Department that they fired him, tangling Jonsson in a fraud case. Jonsson still maintained that he was not fired on his application for the certificate of rehabilitation, even though legal documents from the previous employer and the Employment Development Department show otherwise.
"I had no idea that continuing to believe in my side of the story was going to label me as a liar and undo everything I had done up to that point to improve my life," Jonsson said. "I'm never working for another private paramedic company again because of stuff like this. You have no union there to support you and then you get screwed over like this and can't do anything about it."
Certificates of rehabilitation may be the only way for ex-felons to get a chance, but even those who've received them say their merits are questionable.
"Have you ever seen a certificate of rehabilitation?" asked All of Us or None's Dorsey Nunn, who's also an ex-felon. "It's a big joke. It isn't anything I'd hand to an employer. If you think it gives you that credibility and the fuzzy feeling inside, it doesn't give you that fuzzy feeling. Would you get that if all I would hand you is a paper that says you went to prison three times and for how long?"
Nunn said he doesn't believe that ex-felons should have to be pushed to prove that they've been rehabilitated. "If I've served time in prison, I don't owe anyone anything else," Nunn said. While he encouraged some ex-felons to apply for the certificate, he says, "no one was willing to get one."
"It might help you to get around the question of a license you're going for," Nunn continued. "But the government hasn't invested a dime in convincing anyone that anybody who gets a certificate is worth investing in. It's never been held out as if it were something meaningful to anyone else."
To Nunn, the more detrimental aspect of the certificate is the way it keeps everyone, including the applicant, wondering when they are a good enough person. "I know there's a lot more people worthy of pardons and clemency out there than those five who have gotten them in the last ten years."
One of those who applied for a certificate was Susan Burton, who founded a re-entry housing nonprofit for women called a New Way of Life in Los Angeles. "I thought it would give me a better ability to get past my past," said Burton, who added that she was sick of being rejected from job openings. "I thought it would give me something legally to present myself with. I thought I would clear up any doubts about who I am."
Burton worked with a public defender and spent about four months preparing her case in 2004. She went through five courts to file papers having to do with multiple drug-related convictions she got while deeply depressed about the untimely death of her son.
Yet since receiving the certificate of rehabilitation, Burton said she hasn't used it once. The piece of paper sits in a file cabinet in her office. She's also received official notice that her pardon was rejected by the governor.
Meanwhile, she continues to get national attention for the rehabilitation services she offers in South Los Angeles. This year she was named one of CNN's top ten heroes in the nation.
"I had to create something that did not question who I am today, and develop a niche and work towards that," said Burton. "It's not because anyone gave me a grand opportunity to redeem myself."
On a cold July morning, the room overlooking Lake Merritt at the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse overflowed with defendants and their supporters. Jonsson, his mother, girlfriend, and other close friends waited among them.
It wasn't a place for much discussion. Simple words and phrases — yes, no, guilty, not guilty, denied, waived, granted — and hearing dates quickly bounced from lawyer to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson as he scheduled hearings and sentenced one defendant after another.
But Jonsson's case halted the pace. He and his lawyer, John McCurley, had spent weeks gathering positive testimonials for their side, even postponing the hearing date to better prepare a rebuttal to the DA's negative recommendation and five-page chronology of his rehabilitation.
Jonsson's heart sank when the first thing Jacobson said to him and his lawyer was, "I have not had a chance to read any of your papers, only the DA's report."
Jacobson said the most he could offer was a five-minute break to take a closer look at the defense's documents. After two and a half hours of watching a stream of defendants come and go from the room, only those involved in Jonsson's case remained. Jonsson anxiously waited with his supporters. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then fifteen. Finally the judge returned, case files in hand.
Even after Jacobson returned to the courtroom and summoned prosecutor Dolge, McCurley, and Jonsson back, the judge took an extra minute to read over the papers spread in front of him, further dragging out the suspense for Jonsson's side. Jacobson then requested the DA's reason for denying a positive recommendation.
After Dolge reiterated that Jonsson had lied about a previous termination on the application for the certificate, McCurley attempted to elaborate on Jonsson's confusion over the termination of his employment at the time. But before the defense had a half-minute to plead its case, Jacobson cut in and asked if Jonsson was, in fact, fired and incorrectly reported his termination to DA investigators.
"Yes," McCurley conceded.
Jacobson then concluded what Jonsson feared all along.
"I'm going to be looking for a longer period of a spotless record," the judge said. "I'm uncomfortable granting the certificate at this point."
Jonsson could barely open his eyes as he held the door open for the last people filing out of the courtroom. Then, for a moment, Jonsson's usual optimism gave way to skepticism over what society expects of him.
"The fact that he focused solely on the unemployment issue, it just shows he wasn't being fair," said Jonsson. "I see people in the White House get pardoned all the time and they ruin people's lives. And here I am. For fourteen years I've been a firefighting volunteer. ... I don't really know what else they can ask for.
"It's hard to have faith in the justice system when I try to do right ... and I continue to pay," Jonsson said, with a quiver in his lips. "To be forgiven, that's all I wanted."
To his family, friends, and former colleagues, it's unfathomable that all their positive testimonies of his kindness, work ethic, and thorough rehabilitation could be outweighed in the hearing by Jonsson's dispute with a previous employer. "I live with him every day and he's a danger to no one," said Dori Maynard, who asked Jonsson to live with her after he served as caretaker for her dying husband, Charles Grant Lewis. "I cannot put into words how unfair it is to keep him from getting this.
"He did six years in prison, and that's no joke — he did his time," continued Maynard, who's president of the Maynard Institute, a journalism think tank. "It's very difficult to watch him now because he wants so badly to work. I wonder how many Hawks there are out there going through the same thing no matter what they do."
Weeks after his court date, Jonsson was moving on as best he could with another plan for becoming a self-sufficient part of society. Applying for another certificate in three years is still part of his plan, as is reporting he was fired from the medic job, even if he thinks it's false and unfair.
He stays in shape with P90X Workout videos to preserve his fitness level and a sliver of hope that he could still be a firefighter some day. He makes a little money doing odd jobs for friends. But Jonsson says going back to school isn't an option. "[I] can't really consider more education at this point because finances are so tight while living on unemployment," he said.
He thought briefly about joining the military after reading about waivers given to ex-felons. But more research revealed that the Department of Defense stopped giving what they call major misconduct waivers in the spring of 2009. Because of a combination of factors related to a declining economy, such as higher unemployment and more student loan debt, the number of recruits signing up for the army went up last year, said Mark Howell, deputy public affairs officer for the United States Army Recruiting Command.
Jonsson isn't sure what else he can do besides finding odd jobs or maybe even starting his own business using his diving skills. But a steady optimism always flies out from underneath mounting doubts about the future because it has to, he says.
"I believe that there is a much bigger purpose for me here in this world," he said. "And I definitely want to take full advantage of that."
This report is part of the News21 project at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which concentrated on California incarceration issues this year. News21 is a Carnegie-Knight-funded initiative on the future of journalism.