Former felons find new jobs and new hope after Prop 47

Jenny Espino , Amy Wu , Cheri Carlson and Jill Castellano
USA TODAY Network-California
December 14, 2016
 

Drill in hand, Tim Wilson kneels to open up a broken air conditioner in Redding, Calif. Repair work like this is steady, but Wilson dreams of more. He wants to be a nurse, and for the first time in a long time, it’s not just a fantasy.

Wilson, 42, a former meth addict, had three felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 47, which allowed some felons to retroactively change their records. With these convictions reduced, Wilson’s chances of being licensed as a nurse are much better. He plans to start school in two years.

“I want to prove that I am worth the risk to give a license,” Wilson said. “God has a plan for me … But I hope it’s not air conditioning.”

Prop 47, which downgraded drug possession and some thefts from felonies to misdemeanors, has reduced nearly 200,000 convictions since it was passed by voters in 2014, according to a groundbreaking analysis by USA TODAY Network-California journalists. Every downgraded conviction brings former felons closer better jobs – and better lives – because, finally, the long shadows of their convictions have disappeared.

People convicted of felonies struggle to find jobs because most employers require applicants to self-report convictions and perform criminal background checks. Some companies outright forbid the hiring of felons, and most will turn away an applicant with felonies if a candidate with no convictions is available. Felons also have more difficulty obtaining professional licenses – whether they want to cut hair, sell homes or practice law.

For those who reduced all of their felonies under Prop 47, no conviction stands between them and employment. Anyone with multiple felonies on their record, but who only reduced one or some of them, is still more employable than before.

This wave of new workers will inevitably benefit the economy, but it also decreases the likelihood of re-arrest. According to recidivism experts and scientific studies, convicts are far less likely to re-offend if they get a good job when their incarceration ends, and yet, this is the exact kind employment that is often out of reach for felons. Unable to compete in the job market, they have few choices: suffer perpetual poverty in a low-paying job, hide their felony from employers or return to crime and risk another stint behind bars.

“We created a system where there’s so many collateral impacts to having a felony conviction on your record that you cannot sustain yourself,” said Lenore Anderson, a prison reform advocate who helped write Prop 47. “You cannot find employment. You cannot find housing. You cannot integrate back with your family. These are all things that lead to recidivism.”

The research is clear. Eighty-nine percent of people who violate parole are unemployed, according to the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit with offices in San Diego and San Bernardino. Former inmates with jobs are nearly seven times less likely to re-offend, according to a 2005 study from Illinois.

Prop 47, passed by voters in 2014, was designed to ease overcrowding in California’s prisons and jails by reducing some drug possession and low-level theft from felonies to misdemeanors both going forward and retroactively.

Overall, the results have been mixed. At least 13,500 inmates were released from incarceration, but many have struggled to restart their lives without treatment for addiction or mental illness. Police have deprioritized small-scale drug arrests to focus on more serious crimes, but property crimes have increased. And an estimated 198,000 felony convictions have downgraded to misdemeanors, most of which belong to defendants with just one eligible felony.

This widespread reduction of convictions will not only create an influx of new workers, but it will also allow the state to get more production out of the workers it already has. Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo, said some working felons are likely over-qualified for their current jobs, but they can’t move up the ladder because of their convictions.

Prop 47 could change that.

"I assume many of these people are not working at the most skilled position they could obtain because of their previous records, and in some cases, they may be hiding," Sohn said. "If they are out in the open and work where they are most efficient, that would raise productivity."

That is exactly the problem for Paul Maartense, a veteran restaurateur in Santa Cruz who had to settle for a job that is normally reserved for rookies.

Maartense, 41, a recovering heroin addict, has 15 years of experience in the restaurant industry and once co-owned two restaurants. But with a slew of convictions on his record, he was lucky to get a late-night server shift at Denny’s.

Everyone else turned him away.

“Absolutely the prior record was an impediment,” said Maartense, who erased some of his convictions under Prop 47. “I can’t apply 

for a lot of jobs.”

Some companies, however, have already begun to embrace California’s new, former-felon workforce.

Earlier this year, ride-share giant Uber publicly encouraged anyone who had their felonies cleared by Prop 47 to apply for one of 

3,330 open driver jobs. Uber doesn't hire felons normally, but the company’s stance was clear – these aren’t felons anymore.

“They opened a door for me,” said Ingrid Archie, who was hired as an Uber driver after Prop 47 downgraded a burglary conviction. “They don’t say ‘no no no’ because I made a mistake. They set the bar for employers, not just to talk about second chances, but to actually provide them.”

Archie’s conviction had cost her good jobs before. In 2011, she was working for Verizon when the company adopted a new policy that forbid employees with felonies. Archie lost her job on the spot.

But now, with the conviction gone, Archie drives for Uber on nights and weekends. During the day, she works as a Prop 47 specialist at A New Way of Life, a Los Angeles group that finds jobs for convicts. Nonprofits like these are busy statewide as more and more former felons embrace a second chance.

Vonya Quarles, who launched StartingOverInc in Corona, said many of the Prop 47 petitioners have abandoned their “I’ll-take-any-kind-of-job-we-can-get” attitude. Politicians may debate how much money Prop 47 has saved, and police might worry about a bump in property crime, but Quarles insists the biggest impact of Prop 47 is also the hardest to measure – new hope.

“We’ve seen people who figure it’s all over and … settle for perpetual poverty go from that mentality to 'I can do something. I have a value,'” Quarles said.

That’s a transformation that Quarles knows well. Decades ago, she racked up a string of convictions, including at least one for selling drugs. Quarles was paroled in 1990, then found a job at a refinery – her first legal, living wage – which she used to support three children while earning her bachelor’s degree.

Today, Quarles is a licensed attorney who has overcome the curse of her conviction. Each month, she hosts a legal clinic designed to help others do the same.

How? Proposition 47.

”It’s a game changer,” Quarles said.