The Riley Guide: Before You Search
A criminal conviction doesn't have to be the end of your career road – not by a long shot. If you've recently been released from jail or prison – or are likely to be released soon – transitional work programs can help you find work immediately, and apply for jobs with employers who won't discriminate against you based on your criminal record. And if you haven't been sentenced yet, Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) programs can help you negotiate for alternatives to jail time, so you can keep pursuing your career and educational goals. Read on to find out how resources like this can help your case.
One legal fact you should know about is the 2012 update to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to these new guidelines, employers who discriminate against all employees with arrest or conviction records may actually be violating these workers' civil rights. This is because, as of 2012, incarceration rates for African American and Hispanic people (32.2 percent and 17.2 percent, respectively) are much higher than rates for Caucasians (5.9 percent) – making discrimination on the sole basis of arrest and conviction records a potentially racial issue. Though this Guidance doesn't constitute an actual law, it's still an official declaration from the federal government, and can thus carry weight in anti-discrimination lawsuits.
Another fact is that a growing number of employers not only hire former convicts, but actually seek out former criminals who are ready to choose a different path in life. For example, the owner of this recycling plant says his mission is to teach marginalized people that they too can become great, if they're willing to work for it. The plant owner recalls one time a few years ago when a tattooed ex-convict came in for an interview. "He'd been in prison for dealing drugs," says the owner, "but he seemed very intelligent, so I hired him. He did a great job working his way up on the line crew… Now, he's our top commodities salesperson."
California snack-food company Homeboy Industries has built its entire brand around the fact that it employs ex-convicts – while other well-known companies, such as Target and Walmart, have removed conviction-related questions from their initial applications – asking them later in the interview process – in order to avoid discrimination. In fact, here's a long list of companies that have openly declared their willingness to hire former felons. Your conviction may limit your career options, but it won't prevent you from finding steady, honest work. A little research, though, can prevent you from wasting your time with a discriminatory employer.
Resources for workforce re-entry abound on the Internet – and many of them are backed up by real-world organizations that can answer your questions and help you further. Some of these organizations' websites provide articles with job-search tips and re-entry guidance – sites like ExOffenderReentry and the National Reentry Resource Center fall into this category. Sites like these are handy for getting a general idea of how to approach the job-search and application process, and make sure you don't fall into common traps, such as applying with a company that's likely to reject your application on the sole basis of your criminal record.
Other websites provide actual lists of job openings and employers that are friendly to ex-convicts. The National Transitional Jobs Network, for instance, provides a database of transitional jobs and programs, which you can browse by city and state. Sites like the New York Center for Employment Opportunities and Washington DC's Prison Outreach Ministry, on the other hand, focus their energies on finding transitional work programs in specific geographical areas. Try a Google search for terms like "[name of your area] + prison transitional work" and "[name of your area] + parole employment opportunities" to find similar programs in your own region. And if you don't find anything promising on the website of an organization like this, don't be shy about giving them a call and explaining your situation.
The National Institute of Corrections also provides a few resources to help you find work. Their Employment Information Handbook – which you can download for free in PDF format – offers guidance and contact information for parole work programs, driver's license applications, loans and grants, and other services that'll help you transition into the working world. And their Simulated Online/Kiosk Job Application provides tips and other info on online job applications, including a simulation program that'll train you to fill one out.
If you've already been convicted but haven't received your sentence yet – or are aiming to negotiate a shorter sentence – a number of programs offer alternatives that may apply to your case. Depending on the nature of your conviction, some judges may be willing to consider the option of community service in place of all or part of your jail time. An electronic monitoring program (ankle bracelet) may also be an option for you. For drug and alcohol-related convictions, a residential rehab program may satisfy some or all of your state's sentencing requirements. And for some felony convictions, community control (house arrest) may be a possibility. It's definitely worth your while to discuss all these options with your defense attorney, especially if you can demonstrate that you're pursuing work training or school, and will continue to do so if given the opportunity.
Many cities and states also provide Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs designed to guide offenders away from incarceration. In New York, for example, Community Connections for Youth, as well as the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), offer guidance and legal assistance to people who've been convicted. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) provides similar help for mentally ill people. You can track down resources in your own area by searching Google for terms like "[name of your area] + alternative to incarceration program." Programs like this are worth examining even if you already have a lawyer, because many of them provide expert legal counselling of their own.
What the Arrest/Conviction Guidance Means to You — A plain-English guide to the 2012 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Enforcement Guidance – including the new Guidance's warnings about discrimination against ex-convicts.
National Transitional Jobs Network — A database of currently available transitional jobs programs across the U.S.
Alternatives to Serving Straight Jail Time — A list of programs that some judges will accept as alternatives to jail time or parole in certain cases.