When it comes to the job market, it’s an uphill battle for ex-offenders
By Christine G.K. LaPado
When she was 19 years old, Felicity made a mistake that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She’d been trying to turn her life around, to sober up after wandering down “the road to being a drug-addicted, screwed-up kid,” and so she left the town where her troubles began to explore the open road with two friends.
The three drove around the country for two months “exploring, getting clean, visiting friends and family, and seeing what the United States looked like.” At the end of those two months, their money ran out.
“One of my friends got the crazy idea to rob a restaurant,” said Felicity (not her real name). While she waited in the car, he walked inside with a gun, she said, which he brandished briefly before changing his mind about committing the robbery and walking back outside.
A little scared about what they’d almost done, they drove to the next state and stayed with some friends for a few days. Their plan for money: get jobs. Days later, police arrived at the house—they’d gotten a noise complaint from a neighbor—and after checking IDs, arrested Felicity and her friend for first-degree armed robbery. Turns out they were wanted for attempting to rob the restaurant, after the license plate of the car they were driving turned up on a surveillance-camera video.
Felicity, who drove the “getaway car,” was offered probation and a chance to go back home to her family if she testified against her friend and said that he had attempted to rob the restaurant and failed.
“The problem was that he hadn’t attempted to rob anyone,” Felicity said. “He had changed his mind and left. … I couldn’t contemplate saying he had tried to violently rob the restaurant when he hadn’t, just to save my own skin.… I would have to wake up every day and know I had put him in prison for the next quarter of a century while I went home.”
Instead, Felicity ended up pleading guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree burglary, a felony that called for a 10-year sentence. Because the former high-school honor student “from a good home and a loving family” had no criminal record to that point—“not even a parking ticket”—the violent element of the charge was removed, and Felicity served 21 months in a women’s prison. She was denied parole three times, deemed a danger to society.
Since this experience, Felicity went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Chico State, where she is currently a graduate student as well as a university employee.
But because of the felony on her record, the bright-eyed, attractive, self-possessed 30-year-old has repeatedly been denied opportunities to better herself and contribute to society to her full potential.
Like thousands of others in California—and many more nationwide—having a felony on her record has been akin to wearing a scarlet letter “F” when it’s come to seeking employment and seizing opportunities. Felicity has had a number of crushing disappointments after getting within figurative millimeters of grabbing the brass ring—all directly related to her felony.
There is some hope, though. Discrimination like what Felicity has felt is the reason why organizations like Starting Over Strong have launched campaigns to “ban the box”—meaning the box on job applications that asks about criminal history—and helped people to get their records expunged.
“I’ve spent every single day for the last decade focusing on living my life with integrity, progressing, and trying to stay motivated to keep going in a society that has forever labeled me a felon, a convict,” Felicity said. “Everybody has made bad decisions. Not all bad decisions are on paper.”
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Starting Over Strong’s next expungement workshop will be held Tuesday, May 31, in Room 304 of Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. This workshop will cover completion of the criminal-record expungement petition and the petition-fee-waiver form. Bring a current copy of your criminal record. A donation of $5 is asked. Go to www.startingoverstrong.com, or call Sharon (867-3296), Stephanie (370-6880) or Cherie (990-3198) for more information.