Pennsylvania aims to smooth ex-convicts’ path to employment
State officials and community groups are trying to reduce employment hurdles for Pennsylvania’s former convicts, but finding work remains a struggle for ex-prisoners long after their release from incarceration.
Starting July 1, state agencies will no longer ask job candidates about criminal convictions as part of employment applications. The move mirrors similar “ban the box” initiatives gaining popularity across the country.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have similar fair-chance hiring practices enshrined in city ordinances. And while such initiatives don’t forbid candidate criminal background checks, they can give job seekers a chance to make their case to employers instead of being automatically weeded out of a candidate pool.
“Process matters,” said Beth Avery, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “If (an employer) knows from step one that a person has a record, that’s going to color their interaction. … It’s going to affect their assessment of a person.”
Nearly 20,000 inmates were released from Pennsylvania prisons in 2016, according to the Department of Corrections. Almost 17,000 were paroled, while 3,000 were released after completing their sentences.
Former convicts looking for work can do a few things to try to make the search easier, according to a report by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. They can try to persuade employers to seek bonds against an often-perceived risk of theft. They can try to enforce a state law that allows employers to consider felony or misdemeanor convictions “only to the extent to which they relate to the applicant’s suitability for employment,” though that often requires a lawsuit.
They also can try to clean up their criminal records through expungements or pardons, although those options are limited in Pennsylvania.
“Most likely, they do not know of or cannot utilize any of these options, and their only alternatives are long, dogged and often repetitive job searches, work in the underground economy or a return to committing crimes,” the report states.
Michael Tedesco, 60, served seven months in prison and five years on probation following his 1990 guilty plea in a Penn Hills cocaine trafficking case. President Barack Obama pardoned the Murrysville businessman.
But for more than 25 years, Tedesco was burdened by his felony record. Through family, he was able to find work after being released from prison, but his criminal past often caused problems — notably when he tried to expand his successful car warranty business, Cars Protection Plus, into states with stringent licensing background checks.
“Everything you do, it’s a burden,” Tedesco said of his conviction. “You carry it throughout your life.”
Tedesco’s pardon marked the end of five years’ worth of on-again, off-again pardon applications with help from an old friend and attorney. But most former inmates won’t be lucky enough to have a president pardon their conviction and must instead turn to other options to make employment easier.
Dean Williams, a convicted felon who runs the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project in Pittsburgh, tries to help where he can. He pushed Pittsburgh to pass a “ban the box” ordinance, and he runs monthly workshops to help people navigate the often-perplexing process of cleaning up their records as much as possible.
Without a job and a safe place to live, people are more likely to return to crime after they’re released from prison.
“That hurts the community, that hurts their families, that hurts the people they are taking care of,” Williams said.
Williams originally funded his efforts through a Faulk Foundation grant, but that money has dried up. He’s left doing much of his work as a volunteer, though he recently started charging $10 for monthly workshops on the second Monday of every month at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street location.
Williams hopes his work makes a difference, but he admitted helping people clean up their records and stay out of jail is a daunting task. His clients often need housing help, too, and he hopes to connect with other service providers to meet that need.
“It’s small increments toward making the situation better,” he said.
Some relief could soon come from the Department of Corrections. A federally funded pilot program seeks to improve the department’s re-entry efforts by better preparing inmates for their return to the workforce. SCI Fayette is one of six pilot institutions in the state.
Dorenda Hamarlund, DOC’s career pathways program manager, said the pilot program helps inmates identify viable career options and outline a plan for how they’ll attain those jobs. It involves traditional training and education as well as preparing inmates for interacting with employees and customers, job interviews and how to address their criminal past with potential employers.
“From the moment of incarceration, we’re looking at release,” Hamarlund said.
Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1290, [email protected] com or via Twitter @WaltonReporting.