In January of 2014, Octavian left the Correctional Institute in Americus, having just served a 10-month sentence for aggravated assault. At 27 years old, his life lay ahead of him, yet he had no idea what to do with it.
“After my release I could not find a job anywhere and thought that I had ruined my chance of having a successful future or being able to take care of myself,” Octavian said, who moved back to his hometown of Savannah after his release.
Each month nearly 1,300 men and women just like Octavian return to their communities across Georgia to face the daunting task of reconstructing their lives. One of the first orders of business is to find a job. However many returning citizens are unable to get past the application stage of the job search because of their criminal background. Nearly all applications for all levels of work have a box that requires an applicant to note any criminal history. When an applicant checks that box, it acts as a “scarlet letter,” affecting the employer’s perception of the applicant. The employer’s view of the applicant is tainted before ever examining their qualifications.
So why is this a problem? Georgia is one of the hardest states to get a job when the box is checked. Even individuals re-entering with high-level hard skills are considered unemployable, and all too often, the conviction is irrelevant to the demands of the job. Those returning citizens lucky enough to find a job typically have to settle for the lowest-wage positions regardless of their skills, which leaves them stuck in a cycle of poverty. Evidence has shown that stable employment is the best way to prevent recidivism. With nearly 3.8 million, or one in three Georgians, with some kind of criminal background the state needs to step up and assist returning citizens in getting their fair shot.
Governor Nathan Deal agrees. Through executive order on February 23, 2015, Georgia joined thirteen states to enact the fair hiring policy commonly called “Ban the Box.” And Georgia is the first Southern state to sign. The new policy means returning citizens will be considered first on merit and qualifications on state employment applications. Rather than disclose their criminal history on the application, the candidate is able disclose their criminal history in a face-to-face interview. This should allow candidates to provide a better understanding of their history and how it impacts their ability to perform the work. In addition, only a relevant conviction may be used as the basis for disqualification.
Step Up Savannah applauds this move because a significant percentage of our Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) graduates have some form of criminal background. We help them develop the job-readiness skills necessary for employment. We partner with Georgia Legal Services to assist our participants learn how to better articulate their criminal history during interviews.
Still, the pool of employers who will hire individuals with a criminal background remains limited. The Governor’s order to “Ban the Box” on state applications should go a long way to reduce a barrier many of our graduates face and potentially open some doors to interview for higher-wage positions.
Octavian found employment after completing CAP and continued to take classes at Savannah Tech. His experience—and many others like him—show it’s possible to rebuild after incarceration. Now because of “Ban the Box,” thousands more Georgians with criminal backgrounds have more hope of finding employment; at least they’ll get a foot in the door.
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