Arrest Record Hurting Job Search? Here's Help

By Wendell Hutson on May 3, 2013 9:27am | Updated on May 3, 2013 11:25am

ENGLEWOOD — Five years ago Moses Grant was arrested and charged with armed robbery, and even though the charge was dismissed in court, Grant said he is still paying for the arrest today.

"Had the charge stuck, I would be a convicted felon. But the case was dismissed after evidence proved I was at work at the time the crime occurred," recalled the 37-year-old Englewood resident. "Regardless, I lost my job and have been working a job here and there ever since."

Unemployment in the Englewood community hovers at 27 percent these days, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council. Englewood has a predominantly black population of 42,987, according to city data.

A study released in April by the Adler School of Professional Psychology contends that Englewood residents are among a growing population of Chicago residents struggling to find employment because of an arrest record.

According to the "Mental Health Impact Assessment" study, if better enforcement were in place to ensure that employers are not excluding job applicants based on their arrest records, employment opportunities for residents in underserved communities like Englewood would increase.

More than 200 Englewood residents participated in the 18-month study, which found that mental health issues were not the only barriers to job opportunities.

“Increasing employability improves the collective mental health and well-being of residents. It also makes it more likely that people will suffer less depression and psychological distress and feel a greater sense of connection with their community,” said Lynn Todman, executive director for the Institute of Social Exclusion at the Adler School.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission already prohibits employers from excluding job applicants based on their arrest records. But Anthony Lowery, director of policy and advocacy for the Safer Foundation, said many employers are doing it anyway. The Safer Foundation is a Chicago nonprofit organization that focuses on providing social services to those with criminal records and helping them stay out of jail.

"Most employers do not know the difference between an arrest and a conviction. A person could have been arrested six times but charges were dropped each time, and an employer will look at it as a conviction and not hire the person," said Lowery.

Lowery, who was convicted in 1991 for a drug offense, said he "received probation and treatment and went on with my life."

"People need to know that all arrests can be expunged regardless if the charge is a felony," he said.

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown's office is sponsoring an expungement summit June 8 at New Faith Baptist Church in south suburban Matteson and is encouraging adults and juveniles to attend.

One barrier to expungement besides a lack of knowledge is cost. Expungement costs $120 per arrest, said Constance Sherrod, CEO of The Sherrod Law Firm in Chicago. Poor people can apply for a fee waiver but that process requires them to go before a judge, something many don't want to do, Lowery said.

One way to prevent employers from discriminating against job applicants with arrest records is to have questions about arrests and convictions prohibited on job applications, Lowery said. That would allow an applicant  to explain any arrests in person rather than on paper, he said.

"Discussing something sensitive like an arrest is more effective if it is done in person," Lowery said. "At the Safer Foundation we work with people to help them get arrests expunged and convictions sealed. Law enforcement would still be able to see sealed convictions but that's it. No one else," added Lowery.

State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), whose district includes the Auburn Gresham community, is among the sponsors of House Bill 3061 that would amend the Criminal Identification Act to allow certain nonviolent felonies, such as burglary and delivery of a controlled substance, to be sealed.

That's good to know, said Englewood resident Sammy Austin, 28, who has been arrested five times since 2005 and served probation for two nonviolent offenses. He has struggled to find employment.

"It's been a rough ride for me, but God pulled me through. The advice I would give someone struggling to find a job is don't give up," said Austin, who plans to pursue a GED at Kennedy-King College in July. "My birthday is May 15, so by this time next year it is my goal to have my GED. This way when my daughter grows up I can tell her daddy got his education."

Last November, Austin was hired as a janitor at a Catholic elementary school in Englewood despite his criminal record.

"I volunteered at the school for two years before they hired me. They knew about my background and still took a chance on me, which I thank them for," said Austin. "All I want to do know is keep working, raise my daughter and stay out of trouble."

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