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Imprisoned, Rehabilitated, Unemployed

Oakland's large population of ex-felons struggle to get jobs. And their only glimmer of hope — a certificate of rehabilitation — isn't easy to get. Just ask Hawk Aavan Jonsson.

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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.

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