Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Recession adds to ex-felons' job-hunt woes
Sentinel Staff Writer
December 30, 2008
It took Vikki Hankins 18 years to get out of prison. It's her bad luck she got out during a recession.
For an ex-felon to find a job these days is tough -- nearly impossible.
"Basically, nobody will hire you," said Stephanie Porta, spokeswoman for Orlando ACORN, a community-based advocacy organization that works with ex-felons looking for employment. "Even people with little felonies are not finding jobs."
Hankins, 40, released eight months ago from a federal prison in Florida, is living in an International Drive motel paid for by Advocate4Justice, a group that promotes prison reform. She has been turned down for jobs at Denny's, McDonald's, Golden Corral, Walmart, Home Depot, Ramada Inn, Hess and 7-Eleven.
Hankins was sentenced to 23 years for possession of 22 grams of cocaine, but the mark of her conviction is something she will carry the rest of her life.
"There are people who paid the penalty for their mistakes. Inside the soul and the heart, they have changed completely. For those people, do you continue to punish them by holding them to the fire for the rest of their lives?" said Hankins, who was convicted under the alias Vanessa Wade.
Resuming their lives
The plight of unemployed ex-felons is the unfinished business of the civil-rights restoration, a process Gov. Charlie Crist approved last year, making it easier for those same people to regain the right to vote, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando said.
"It's a major problem at this point. That has been the hardest part of the whole restoration [of rights] project," Thompson said.
Florida, home to more than 600,000 released felons, should follow the lead of other states that offer employers tax incentives to hire them, state Sen. Gary Siplin said. And it needs to revisit a bill that stalled in the Florida Senate to make it easier for released felons to have their criminal records expunged, he said. Such a move would allow them to legally say on an application form that they have not been convicted of a felony.
"A person who hasn't committed a crime in 10 or 15 years, they should be able to resume their lives," Siplin said.
The bill to make it easier for records to be expunged died amid opposition from employers who said they need to know the criminal backgrounds of the people they hire. Others contend that criminal records might continue to exist in various databases, regardless of their official removal.
"Expungement doesn't really accomplish what you think it accomplishes. The arrest will be there although the conviction is expunged," said Michael Seigel, professor of law at the University of Florida. "More than likely, an employer will find out."
'It's like I'm blackballed'
What Vikki Hankins deals with is what Alice Laguerre has been living with for 23 years. Laguerre got out of the Orange County jail for drug possession and aggravated battery the same year Hankins went into federal prison. Laguerre went 12 years without a job before landing a position through a labor pool making $5.50 an hour moving cars at an auto auction.
During her unemployment, she learned how to apply for a job. She doesn't bother filling out an application without first checking for the question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Then she asks how far back the employer does criminal-background checks. If it's five years, or seven years, she answers no. That at least gives her a chance of landing a job. Answering yes means certain rejection.
"It's like I'm blackballed from the work force," said Laguerre, 55.
Venues hiring may help
One potential source of jobs for released felons in this economy is the promise of Orlando's Community Venues to hire former convicts for construction work on the Events Center, Dr. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center and Florida Citrus Bowl renovation.
So far, that hasn't happened.
Siplin and other black elected officials say they are closely watching the Community Venues projects to ensure that released felons are given the chance to work.
Like many others, Vikki Hankins came out of prison thinking the worst was over. She could start her life again. Little did she know she would end up out of work and living in a motel room slightly larger than her prison cell.
"Right now, I'm on a prayer," she said. "What is going to happen, when it is going to happen, how is it going to happen -- I try not to let that consume me."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.