UPTOWN — For ex-convicts, even after they serve their sentences, punishment can continue in the form of the dreaded "box" — the square on applications asking about past criminal behavior.
A check mark in the box can mean the difference between an employer tossing a job application in the trash or calling an applicant for a face-to-face interview.
Activists behind a "ban-the-box" campaign are claiming one major victory: since March, Jewel-Osco has removed what it calls "the felony question" from "the initial phases of its employment application process."
The food store chain acknowledged community organizing group ONE Northside's Violence Prevention Coalition, which has been urging companies to stop inquiring about applicants' criminal histories on initial job applications.
"We sincerely appreciate ONE Northside’s commitment to creating better workplace opportunities for citizens in Chicago and, as a longstanding corporate citizen, we value what their impassioned volunteer force is doing to improve our communities," Jewel-Osco said in a statement.
ONE Northside is hoping that other companies follow the example set by Jewel-Osco, whether by choice or by state mandate via a bill that has the backing of Gov. Patrick Quinn. The measure would prevent criminal background questions until after an applicant is deemed qualified for a job in the private sector, his office said. In 2013, Quinn issued an executive order ensuring the same standard for state employment.
An employer can still request a background check and deny a former convict employment, but without the felony question on applications, "the employer just has the person's experience and education to consider, and then they can invite the person to speak with them," said Ebony DeBerry of ONE Northside's Violence Prevention Coalition.
DeBerry, a 37-year-old Rogers Park resident, said the measure was "a way to bring hope back to the hopeless," especially in black and Latino urban communities where jobs are scarce and incarceration rates are high.
Statistically speaking, the U.S. is the world's largest jailer, home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. African Americans and Hispanics comprise about 60 percent of those prisoners.
"If they become unemployable in their 20s, they become criminals for the rest of their lives," DeBerry said. "People do what they must to feed their children."
Brandon Johnson, a convicted felon released from prison in 2013, now works in violence prevention and gang intervention at Howard Area Community Center but went nearly a year without a job.
"When I started the job process, not getting calls back, it just began to discourage me," said Johnson, 29, of Rogers Park. "On many nights I had to fight the temptation of going back to what I know I could do, [selling drugs.] I wouldn't have to want for anything."
A job interview is "a chance to explain myself and sell myself to an employer who doesn't have the chance to assume who I am" because a job application shows a criminal history, Johnson said.
Some ban the box critics, like the National Federation of Independent Businesses, feel the law has no place in a free enterprise system, infringes on a private business' right to gather important information to ensure safety, and could ultimately waste an employer's time if a felony comes up on a background check and causes them to deny an application anyway.
Ban-the-box advocates say measures like Illinois' proposal would help more people trying to change their lives get a foot in the door at companies, and get jobs that will keep them from committing crimes — and keep them out of prison.
Johnson acknowledged "if I'm running a business I have to know who I'm hiring because I have these people around my customers."
But at the same time, "some of your best and loyal workers are guys that have been incarcerated, because they know they have something to prove," he said.
In support of House Bill 5701, Quinn's office said "hiring managers should have the opportunity to learn of a candidate’s skills and qualifications before making a decision based on their history" and that "ex-offenders should not face a life sentence of no job prospects and no life opportunities."
Baltimore and Philadelphia both have similar laws on the books.
Joe Berry, an employee at a Jewel-Osco in North Center, applauded his employer for the decision.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," he said.