How I got a fresh start after prison

The Fair Chance Act just went into effect in New York City – legislation that will make a huge difference for the millions of New Yorkers like me who struggle to find work due to a criminal record, despite having the ability and skills to contribute to our economy.

The Fair Chance Act does not deny employers the ability to check a candidate's criminal record; however it does delay any questions about a candidate's criminal record history until after a conditional job offer. At that point, the employer can ask and make a fully informed decision, knowing the candidate's record but also knowing his or her qualifications. Simply put: this law gives people with criminal records a fair chance to compete for work. Communities nationwide are passing similar policies, but today's New York's Fair Chance Act is among the strongest of these "ban the box" laws.

Brian Pearson
Source: Vocal-NY
Brian Pearson
"I applied for a dozen jobs a day, but on every application I'd have to face my past with one question: 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' Sometimes I left the boxes blank, hoping they wouldn't ask again; other times I'd write, 'Yes, will explain in interview.'" -Brian Pearson

When I came home from prison in 2010, all I wanted was a fresh start for my daughter and I. I knew I couldn't go back to the way I was living before. I had been in and out of trouble since I was a teenager, and at 35 I couldn't imagine spending more time locked up and away from my family.

I applied for a dozen jobs a day, but on every application I'd have to face my past with one question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Sometimes I left the boxes blank, hoping they wouldn't ask again; other times I'd write, "Yes, will explain in interview," but only twice got the opportunity. Every time, I felt like I was being judged for who I was when I got convicted, not for the person I had worked so hard to become.

Being denied a fair shot at a job over and over again took a toll on my self-esteem. With so many people telling me that I wasn't good enough, I started to believe it. I gradually applied to fewer and fewer jobs because I thought that employers would always see me as a felon, not as a person. I have friends who gave up because they were so discouraged—some of them ended up back in prison because they couldn't find work and couldn't get by.

But, things changed for me when I became involved in Vocal-NY, an advocacy organization which helps formerly incarcerated people find employment. It was right after Hurricane Sandy, when New York City was desperate need of workers to clean up debris and remove mold from homes so that people could return to healthy homes. We advocated for people with records to be hired for these jobs — and we won. I got the chance to prove myself in an interview with Liuna Local 78, a trade union that represents asbestos, lead and hazardous waste handlers in the New York City-area, and employers saw past my conviction history and got to know what I'm really about—which is working hard and overcoming adversity. They hired me. Helping to rebuild New York City helped me rebuild my life.

Now as a construction worker and member of Liuna Local 78, I earn a wage that pays the bills and enables me to provide for my family and focus on being the best father I can be. This year, for the first time, I was able to throw my daughter a birthday party and pay for it myself. My family is proud of me again and that's worth more than anything. I'm incredibly thankful for the second chance to live a decent life, especially because I know there are so many other formerly incarcerated job seekers in every city in America who are out there struggling to find work.

According to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men between the ages of 25-54 (generally considered the prime working age). A study of help-wanted advertisements in Virginia found that of more than 192,000 total positions listed, just under 16,000 (or 8.23 percent) were open to hiring an applicant with a record. It is clear that for many formerly incarcerated job seekers, the chance for a decent job is slim.

The good news is things are changing across the country. Some of our nation's largest employers and over 100 cities have banned the box. Recently, a coalition of nonprofits and activists — including National Employment Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and Color of Change — delivered a petition with more than 130,000 signatures to the White House, demanding the president "ban the box" for all federal employers and contractors. Communities see that fair chance policies help the entire population and economies.

According to a case study by The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, in Durham County, North Carolina, the number of applicants with criminal records recommended for hire has nearly tripled in the two years since its "ban the box" policy passed, with the resulting number of hires increasing from 35 to 97. On average, 96.8 percent of those with records recommended for hire ultimately get the job.

And now America's largest city has banned the box. I hope others communities across our country that still haven't made the change will see that if America's largest city can do it, anyone can.

Commentary by Brian Pearson, a construction worker with LiUNA Local 78 and a member of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots community organization that builds power among low-income people impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, and mass incarceration to create healthy and just communities. Follow VOCAL-NY on twitter at @VOCALNewYork.