When Willie Lockett Jr. was released seventeen months ago after serving twenty-two years in prison, he faced the daunting prospect of finding a job. Although he obtained a business degree while inside, and continued his education at Laney College after release, Lockett feared that employers would discriminate.
The first position he applied for was at a telecommunications company. He passed all the necessary tests, and was told he got the job. But before his first day of work, the company called to say that because he was on parole they weren't going to hire him.
"I was devastated," Lockett said. He believes that the box on the employment form he checked notifying the company of his prior conviction was what prompted a criminal background check, scuttling his dream of joining the workforce.
But Lockett persevered. He sent off more applications, including one to a small manufacturing firm. Despite knowing about Lockett's prior, the owner gave him a chance. He's been on the job over a year now, working as a machinist.
He and half-a-dozen other formerly incarcerated men implored the Port of Oakland's commissioners at a meeting last week to push for a new, ambitious "ban the box" policy for a massive, private warehouse project that will soon be built on port-owned land.
Justin King told the port commissioners they have a unique opportunity to prevent discrimination against potentially hundreds of people who will seek work at the center. The chance of having a middle-class job will turn people's lives around, he said.
"When we apply for a job, we know we won't get it," said King, who served time in a county jail. "Because when you check that box, they won't call you back."
The port is currently in talks with CenterPoint Properties to build one of the largest logistics complexes on the West Coast. The port will own the land and lease it to CenterPoint. Workers inside the cavernous warehouses will shift cargo between trucks and trains.
Some are worried that these jobs won't be filled by people from the communities closest to the port, in the flatlands of Oakland and surrounding cities. That's partly because so many East Bay residents have criminal records.
Even though California's justice system has shifted recently toward more rehabilitative policies, including releasing nonviolent offenders earlier, many of the state's employers haven't changed their thinking about the formerly incarcerated. People with records feel they're being set up to fail — released back into society but locked out of the job market.
A coalition of community groups, faith leaders, unions, and formerly incarcerated people called Revive Oakland has been negotiating with CenterPoint for months over a good-jobs agreement (see "'A People's Port': Unions, Community Groups Hope to 'Revive' Oakland with Jobs Agreement at Army Base Project," 8/22). A lynchpin of the deal, they say, is a strong ban-the-box policy.
Jahmese Myres of Revive Oakland told the Express that they're seeking the most advanced ban-the-box policy possible, one that would close out loopholes that exist in similar policies adopted in recent years by other cities and states. According to Myres, some policies include a clause that gives employers almost unlimited discretion to conduct criminal background checks on any employee being hired.
Revive Oakland wants CenterPoint and the port to agree on a more transparent and formal policy that includes a standardized list of "sensitive positions" for which a background check can be conducted. For all other jobs, the employer wouldn't be able to look into a person's criminal history. They also want to limit the review of a person's convictions only to offenses directly related to the job they're applying for.
According to Beth Avery, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, ban-the-box policies that apply to private companies like CenterPoint have been adopted by nine states and fourteen cities, plus Washington D.C. So-called "fair chance" policies like ban-the-box are gaining momentum as a policy tool to both reform the criminal-justice system and also spur the economy.
"People with records are not necessarily worse employees," Avery said. "In fact, some employers are coming forward and saying these are our best."
In terms of societal impact, Avery said it's important that companies move toward more holistic methods of assessing a potential employee, and not letting past convictions instill bias. Part of the reason is that people of color are more impacted by mass incarceration, therefore the check box on applications reinforces racial inequality.
But millions of white Americans are also likely being locked out of job opportunities because of prior convictions. "This is such a massive problem, 70 million people, nearly one in three adults has a record," Avery said.
Port Commissioner Earl Hamlin told the Express that the board is "generally supportive" of a ban-the-box policy.
Another commissioner, Cestra Butner, said that he's hired formerly incarcerated people at Horizon Beverage, a distribution business.
However, whether or not CenterPoint will agree to what would be one of the strongest ban-the-box policies in the country is unclear. The company didn't return emails seeking comment.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Justin King served time in a state prison. He was convicted of a crime and served time in a county jail.
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