Looking for a new job, Walter Killian applied for a substitute custodian position with West Contra County Unified School District. The job seemed like a great fit. With years of experience as a custodian and maintenance person, he was well qualified. In addition, the part-time position would allow him to care for his elderly mother.
At the beginning of his job search, Walter was concerned that a nearly twenty-year-old drug offense conviction would be an obstacle to finding employment. Since the conviction, he had worked steadily, cared for his mother, and was active in his church, including singing in the choir. But he still worried that the old conviction could cause problems.
Walter went to a “clean slate” organization, where they helped him reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor. He believed that it had been “expunged” and removed from his conviction record entirely. So when the school district’s job application asked about prior convictions, Walter answered, “No.” When a background check surfaced his old conviction, that mistake cost Walter the job.
Too Many Like Him
Walter is not alone. The stigma associated with a conviction has a lasting, detrimental impact on employment opportunities. A large-scale study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. This study also found that the negative effect of a criminal record was substantially larger for African-American applicants. The stigma of a record persists, affecting the employment prospects of individuals for many years, regardless of whether the offense was minor or the person had never been convicted at all.
California and local entities are taking steps to mitigate the stigma of prior convictions. While some convictions prohibit employment at schools, California’s state education code does allow schools to employ individuals with certain lesser convictions who can demonstrate rehabilitation. West Contra Costa Unified School District’s own administrative rules contain similar protections. In 2013, Richmond, California, passed a “Ban the Box” ordinance that prohibits city contractors from asking about prior convictions on job applications and requires them to evaluate an applicant’s qualifications before conducting a background check. These state and local rules strive to provide fair employment opportunities for people with prior convictions.
Fair Chance Laws Must Be Enforced to Be Effective
After West Contra Costa Unified School District denied Walter employment as a substitute custodian, he decided to take steps to prevent what happened to him from happening to others: “I decided to make it right and say, ‘Let’s stop it right now.’” In January 2018, he sued the school district in state court to require it to comply with state and local law.
Local Richmond organization the Safe Return Project later joined the lawsuit. The Safe Return Project is comprised of formerly incarcerated people and their families, community members, allies, and faith leaders. It seeks to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system in disadvantaged communities by establishing pathways to secure housing and employment for individuals with past convictions.
Tamisha Walker, the Safe Return Project’s Executive Director, believes fair employment practices benefit the larger community. She said: “True public safety is positioning society to acknowledge that access to economic stability is one of the only pathways to self-sufficiency and long-term liberty.”
A Better Future
This week, the Safe Return Project and Walter Killian reached a landmark settlement with West Contra Costa Unified School District.
Starting in June 2019, the District’s job application will no longer ask about prior convictions. Instead, the District will evaluate whether an applicant is qualified for the position before it considers criminal history. The District will also establish a new process for reviewing information about criminal histories, an applicant’s rehabilitation, and mitigating circumstances surrounding a prior conviction. Certain criminal convictions will continue to automatically bar employment with the District, but the new policy will help eligible applicants with lesser criminal records.
Along with co-counsel Bay Area Legal Aid, the Impact Fund was proud to represent Walter Killian and the Safe Return Project. Rebekah Evenson, Bay Area Legal Aid’s Director of Litigation and Advocacy, is pleased with the settlement: “The school district has adopted model policies that will ensure that people with criminal histories have a fair shake at getting a job and successfully rejoining their communities.”
Lindsay Nako, Impact Fund’s Director of Litigation and Training, agrees: “The changes made by West Contra Costa Unified School District will make a real difference in its community. We hope other school districts take note and take similar steps to ensure their work forces reflect the communities they serve.”