Tuesday, September 30, 2014

New California Law Will Open Up Job Opportunities To People With Criminal Records

By Sam Levin
Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 3:31 PM

Senator Holly Mitchell. - SENATE.CA.GOV
  • senate.ca.gov
  • Senator Holly Mitchell.
California has just removed a significant barrier to employment for people with criminal records. Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that eliminates a discriminatory policy in the healthcare industry that barred people with certain past convictions — including for non-violent offenses — from getting certified nursing assistant (CNA) licenses. The practice of automatically denying CNA licenses to people with criminal records was particularly harmful to low-income women who had past run-ins with the law — blocking them from accessing stable, living-wage jobs for which they would otherwise be qualified.

"This gives individuals a chance to provide evidence of rehabilitation," said Natalie Lyons, project attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based civil rights organization that sponsored the legislation, Senate Bill 1384, as part of its "Let Her Work" campaign. "What this bill does is opens up opportunities for a group of individuals .. who suffer from poverty and are trying to get a leg up. They are constantly facing these barriers." 

Brown signed the bill into law despite the fact that the California Department of Public Health came out in opposition to the proposal over the summer, arguing that the legislation would limit the state's ability to protect patients from potentially dangerous CNAs. From the perspective of some civil rights advocates, that stance perpetuated stereotypes about people with criminal records and reflected an outdated refusal to give second chances to people caught up in the criminal justice system. The long list of disqualifying convictions included non-violent offenses like petty theft and receipt of stolen property — and prospective CNAs could be rejected due to cases from many decades ago. 

Supporters of the bill, introduced by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), also noted that the legislation simply removes the practice of automatically denying licenses while allowing the state to continue to reject applicants that it believes are unsuitable for the CNA job. 

What's more, there are a wide range of healthcare professions, including dentists and psychologists, that don't have these types of automatic denials of licenses or certification due to convictions. That means that eliminating the policy for CNAs is essentially leveling the playing field. And nearly 90 percent of CNAs are women, Lyons said. 

Lyons noted that there have been cases where women on government assistance go through a welfare-to-work program and successfully complete CNA training but then can't get a license solely due to their record. She referenced one woman who had a single conviction on her record — an assault case in which she was fighting back against her abuser. "That doesn't reflect that she's a dangerous person. It reflects a situation that's way more complex."

And for those denied licenses, Lyons added, the feeling often is, "'I'm being blocked by this conviction that no longer represents who I am.'" 

While the scope of this new law is somewhat narrow, Lyons said she hopes it will pave the way for additional reforms that help people with criminal records find jobs. As we've covered extensively at the Express, people with records and formerly incarcerated individuals greatly struggle with a wide range of discrimination and barriers to reentry after prison; lack of access to steady employment is only one of many obstacles that can trap this population in poverty. 

In the case of SB 1384, Lyons said, "This is really going to impact low-income women who need this help tremendously. ... CNAs make a living wage."

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