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This is why Californians with convictions can’t move on with their lives

When Jay Jordan walked out of prison in 2011, after serving seven years for a robbery he committed in Northern California when he was 19, he was determined to get past his conviction and start a new life. He sought out work, first looking for employment as a barber, a job he had while he was in. But after sending out more than 30 different applications, he remained jobless, and nearly hopeless. Rejection after rejection cited his conviction as the reason employers had refused to consider him for a position.

Jordan quickly realized that he wasn’t alone. According to a report published in early September by the group Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), which Jordan himself helped spearhead, 1 in 5 Californians are currently living in the shadow of a conviction. The report notes that, of that figure, a “vast majority have never actually served time in prison,” yet all of of them are affected by the thousands of barriers blocking those with convictions from living a productive life.

“Nearly 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed a year after release,” the report reads.

A conviction on someone’s record in the state of California means they’re often barred from obtaining gainful employment, safe housing, and public benefits. It also complicates immigration, buries people in fines and fees, and can have adverse effects on people’s health.

The report also breaks down the systemic marginalization those living with convictions face. “A wealth of evidence indicates educational programming is one of the most effective approaches to reducing recidivism. Still, individuals with convictions, particularly if they have been incarcerated, must overcome significant obstacles in accessing educational and vocational training programs,” the report notes.

Lower educational attainment, the authors state, is “directly associated with increased arrest and incarceration rates,” particularly among men.

“Nationally, roughly 40% of incarcerated individuals lack a high school diploma or GED; among individuals with a high school diploma or GED, 46% lack post secondary education,” they write. “Decreased access to education makes it harder for an individual to access well paying jobs, forge strong community ties and disengage from risk-taking behaviors—thus increasing the likelihood of crime involvement.”

Additionally, even those who are incarcerated or who have convictions on their records who manage to make it into college or technical school face massive hurdles to completing their degrees.

The study notes that, under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), incarcerated individuals are prohibited from obtaining Pell Grants, which unlike loans do not need to be repaid. The study also notes the Higher Education Act was amended in 1998 to prohibit those with drug convictions from “receiving federal financial aid to attend an institution of higher learning,” though “the act was later amended to only apply to those who committed a drug offense while receiving federal financial aid,” the authors write.

For his part, Jordan found some luck in fueling his frustration into activism. He took on an array of jobs — field director for a political campaign, external affairs consultant for a software company, community organizer — before being hired on with CSJ in 2016, according to LinkedIn, which offered him the support he needed to get over his employment hurdles.

“But I’m affected by every other [barrier],” he said.

Jordan told ThinkProgress that he and his wife had looked into adopting, for instance, only to learn that because of his conviction they are barred from applying. The couple also closed on a home recently, though Jordan wasn’t able to join their Home Owner Association. The two have also discussed wanting to start a company together but Jordan wouldn’t be able to apply for the licensing, as his record stands.

The CSJ report — which took up to a year to complete and was compiled by Jordan and a diverse group of at least 30 people — is the first step in a movement, Time Done, another campaign launched by CSJ’s sister organization, the Alliance for Safety and Justice. With Time Done, Jordan hopes to create a policy that will create a clear track to sun-setting convictions. (Jordan was extremely clear that Time Done was not advocating for sun-setting all convictions, such as violent sex offenses or convictions for those who may still pose a major risk to society.)

“This is not about shorter sentences,” he said. “This is not about people who just got out. This is about people who are out and have served their time, have paid their debts, and remain crime free and have proven that they can live in society and be productive. All we’re saying is let’s not put our foot on their necks as a country.”

Kay Wicker

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