Proposition 47, which California voters overwhelmingly approved Tuesday, could change the course of the state’s criminal justice system. By changing six low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, Proposition 47 could also be a game-changer for people ready to move past their punishment.
New job opportunities for formerly incarcerated workers could translate into economic benefits for all. Putting people back to work increases their earnings and the income taxes they pay, and boosts sales tax revenues.
While a survey of California employers indicated that most would be willing to hire people with misdemeanor convictions, that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Research has found that having a criminal record reduces call-backs for job applicants by 50 percent. When they say “yes” to that conviction question on a job application, they’re marked with a modern-day scarlet letter.
The promise of Proposition 47 can be met, and even amplified, if employers – both public and private – consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of the record.
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That’s the hallmark of a reform that has now grown into a movement. Known as “ban the box,” 13 states and more than 70 U.S. localities have removed the conviction history question from the job application and delayed background checks until later in hiring. Such a law – Assembly Bill 218 – went into effect on July 1 for public employers in California.
But since most jobs are in the private sector, the next wave of “fair-chance” policies is evolving. In February, San Francisco passed the first fair-chance ordinance in California to apply to private employers. If Los Angeles does the same, it could become the largest city in the nation with such a fair-hiring law, joining six states and more than 20 jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
The appeal of fair-hiring laws isn’t confined to these traditionally progressive jurisdictions. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle are including fair-hiring laws as part of their “smart-on-crime” agenda to reduce criminal justice spending and increase public safety. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has endorsed removing the conviction question from the job application. President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper task force also supports fair-chance hiring.
Fair-chance policies benefit everyone because they’re good for families and the local community. At a recent event in Oakland for employers, one business owner spoke to the personal benefit he finds from hiring people with criminal records.
“I’ve seen how a job makes all the difference,” said Derreck B. Johnson, founder and president of Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland. “When I give someone a chance and he becomes my best employee, I know that I’m doing right by my community.”
The passage of Proposition 47 shows that Californians are ready to give people the opportunity to put their past behind them. Whether it’s a belief in second chances, doing right by your community or a question of economics, Californians are ready for the next step.
Local fair-chance policies, and education about the employment rights of all people with a criminal record, will build on the promise of Proposition 47 and make it a reality.
Michelle Natividad Rodriguez is an attorney in Oakland with the National Employment Law Project.