Brown to Employers: Give Ex-cons Jobs

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Gov. Jerry Brown,  (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

Experts say the Bay Area economy is looking up, but not for everyone, and especially not people with a criminal past.

So during a politician-studded Friday forum for employers at Oakland's Merritt College — the third in the state so far — Governor Jerry Brown made a podium-pounding pitch to local businesses: Give more formerly incarcerated people a chance.

Without those opportunities, Brown says a lack of work will keep them locked out of a permanent place in their communities and, too often, locked up behind bars once again.

"This work I see is, yes, about public safety, but it's also about being a human being," says Brown.

Local Employers Consider Hiring Felons

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Some business representatives in attendance said they'd never hired ex-offenders before. Among them, John Marshall of Marsetti, a peninsula-based landscaping contractor who says he's looking for a carpenter.

"I came here because I'm looking for someone with some skills, and I don't have a problem giving someone a second or a third chance."

Marshall says a lot of companies won't hire ex-convicts, but he's "known people personally who have been in prison for large amounts of time and they're trustworthy people."

Marshall says construction is very busy and not a lot of people are looking for work, so he's hoping to get connected with a network of jobseekers that will help augment his small staff. That's something that California Prison Industry Authority and EASTBAY Works say they can do.

Applebee's Operations Director Tom Simmons says his restaurants have hired people with records, but his 12 Bay Area restaurants have a hard time retaining cooks. So, Simmons says he wants to learn more about training programs inside prisons.

"Because if they can come out and understand what it means to be in a kitchen and how to work in there, the desire to work and that knowledge, plus our need to hire some cooks, it's a good fit."

New Laws Incentivize Hiring Felons

Recent laws have attempted to chip away at the stigma that awaits people once they rejoin their communities. They include the Ban the Box initiative, which forbids employers from asking about convictions on applications, and Prop. 47, which opens the door for people with low-level felonies, such as crack possession, to petition to have their records reclassified as misdemeanors.

Now, Brown is hoping that providing employers with information and incentives will encourage more of them to do their part. That means tax breaks, talent matching,  bond reimbursements and training subsidies of between $5-10,000 per employee.

Businesses can also take part in a Joint Venture Program that offers what officials call attractive benefits for employing people while they're still in custody, in the hopes of providing them a seamless transition once they're out.

Advocates say a big part of the solution now will be ensuring that all ex-offenders get the legal help they need to navigate the complicated waters around job eligibility.

And equally important will be for employers to publicly state their willingness to hire ex-offenders so that others aren't afraid to follow suit.