There’s a little box on every job application that fills Heidi Webster with dread.
The box reads: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” And checking it, she says, has cost her countless job opportunities.
Because the truth is, Webster does have a background. Drug charges. Retail thefts – stealing to feed a drug habit. An attempted forgery that she called a misunderstanding. (She says her roommate at the time allowed her to sign a blank check for the rent. Her criminal background says the case ended in a conviction and a year of probation.)
“There’s never a space [on a job application] that asks what you’ve done for your sentence, what you’ve done to be rehabilitated,” Webster said. “You don’t have a chance to explain it.”
Webster has been sober nearly two years and is set to graduate from the county’s Drug Court probation program in November. She’s got a new apartment and is working on her GED.
Now she wants a steady job. She’s applied for a number of serving jobs – an industry in which she’s logged more than 20 years of experience.
But she can’t outrun the black marks on her criminal background that dog her every attempt at stable employment.
“I think it’s just because of my [criminal] background, they run it after they interview me,” Webster said. “There’s a lot of people who are looking for jobs right now. If [employers] have a choice between someone with all these felonies on their record and six to 10 other people with no felonies, they’re going to go with people who don’t have a background.”
The employment hurdles for those convicted of a crime are well documented. A recent Justice Center study found that less than half of released prisoners had secured a job upon their return to the community.
Human resource managers, for their part, have to toe the line with liability that may come with employment. But advocates say that shouldn’t come at a cost of tagging these ex-offenders as unemployable.
“It’s a hard decision that human resource managers have to make,” said Michelle Durpetti, who sits on the governing board of the local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM. “... [Some say] ‘I don’t need the headache ... Why would I hire that person, when there is this person who doesn’t have a criminal record?’
“It doesn’t mean that person without a criminal background is going to be any better. … It doesn’t mean [the potential employee is] going to be a headache.”
Durpetti, who works as the director of the Employee Assistance Program at Advantage Health Care, represents SHRM on a new initiative to help ex-offenders find work, with the idea being to keep them from re-offending. Called the Workforce Readiness Committee, the group also includes a partnership with the local courts and the McHenry County Workforce Network. They host training workshops and offer other assistance to return ex-offenders to the working world.
Scott Block is director of the 22nd Judicial Circuit’s specialty courts, including drug and mental health courts. For him, the correlation between one’s employment prospects and re-offending, or maintaining sobriety, is crystal clear. Without work, some might revert to criminal activities, he said.
His participation on the committee is all about removing the stigma faced by those with a criminal background.
“Just because somebody had that behavior at one point in time doesn’t mean that they will always have those same behaviors, or that they can’t become employable again,” Block said. “We have to believe that people can rehabilitate.”
Block also pointed to the latest statistics from the Justice Center, which found that 95 percent of incarcerated people return to the community where they lived before they went to prison.
“These individuals are here, and they’re in our community,” Block said. “…These are individuals that are out there seeking employment that also need opportunity. … We can’t just pretend they don’t exist here.”
But some employers, experts say, simply don’t want to deal with the issue.
Sure, there are some industry employers who are more forgiving than others, said Mary Lee Wolff, assistant director at the McHenry County Workforce Network. Food services, manufacturing and temp jobs are just a few.
However, these tend to be low-wage jobs that can come with odd-hour shifts.
“At least it gives them a step back into that working environment,” Wolff said. “And they can jump into permanent work from there. It’s better than no work at all.”
At the same time, two out of five prison and jail inmates lack a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to statistics from the Justice Center, meaning their earning histories likely were low prior to incarceration.
And for every opportunity, there are more industries that have the closed doors to certain ex-offenders.
“HR managers have told us two things. One: they have to be honest. And two: if they’ve got a violent record we’re not hiring them,” Wolff said.
That’s where Wolff comes in – she can help ex-offenders to assess what jobs they’d best fit in.
While Webster continues to look for work, she feels that frustration, believing herself to be just as employable as the next person. And while she continues her job search, she’s supporting herself with odd jobs such as cleaning houses, weeding gardens and baby-sitting.
“I’m not asking for a lot, I’m not asking for a major career here,” she said. “All I’m asking for is a job so I can afford to be poor.”