I talk about poverty issues a lot and hear the same question all the time: “Why don’t they just get a job?”
Many people won’t ask the question straight out, but the underlying assumptions always seem to bubble up: “If they would just get a job and work hard, they wouldn’t be poor.”
Of course if I’m moving out of poverty, I need a job, but it’s not always as simple as it sounds. However, this week Gov. Deal has made it a little easier for some to get a job. On Sunday, Deal signed Senate Bill 365, creating a new law that helps recently released prisoners get jobs.
Here’s a summary of what the new law provides:
• A judge may now order a defendant’s driver’s license to be reinstated or issue a limited driving permit to allow ex-offenders to travel to and from work if the offense they committed was not related to operating a vehicle.
• The Board of Corrections will develop a program to assist adult offenders with reentry when they are released from prison. The educational and vocational programs may include social and behavioral programs, substance abuse counseling, mentoring, financial planning, physical and mental health programs and housing and federal assistance programs.
• Offenders who complete these programs while in prison receive a certificate. An offender convicted of a serious violent felony is not eligible for the certificate.
• When an employer hires an ex-offender who has earned one of these certificates, it is considered a “presumption of due care” – in hiring or in admitting to a school or program. This addresses the issues common among employers who believe they can’t “take the risk” of hiring an ex-offender.
In Circles of Troup County, we see these challenges often. Qualified citizens with prison time even 10 years ago or longer, often are not able to even submit an application. This is especially true among many of the manufacturing businesses who use the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” as a screening tool. Qualified applicants never have a chance to tell their stories or make a case for being hired when an online application asks that question.
I first came face to face with this when I interviewed a young man who had returned to the Troup County jail and asked that they take him back.
I sat with him in his mother’s kitchen while he explained his reasoning. He was on probation and had to get a job, find stable housing and pass random drug tests. He had to pay for the drug tests, pay on his fine and pay probation fees every month.
The 20-something young man, articulate and handsome, began to cry as he pulled out a pile of business cards representing every business he had visited to find a job. None were interested in hiring an “ex-con.”
He couldn’t do it, he told me. It was just better to go back to jail.
At Circles, we not only help individual families move from poverty to self-sufficiency, but we also work to break down barriers that keep people from moving ahead. From Circles we say a big thank you to Gov. Deal and the sponsors of Georgia SB 365.
But we want to encourage our local employers to take it a step further: drop the “Have you been convicted of a felony?” off your online applications and give qualified applicants a chance for an interview and an opportunity to tell you just how hard they want to work on your job.
Sherri Brown is the director of Circles of Troup County.