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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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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."

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