X-offenders fight barriers to employment

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Last year Gov. Ed Rendell’s office received nearly 600 clemency requests. Of those requests, the pardon board reviewed half and of those 358 requests reviewed, nearly 140 people received public hearings. Ultimately, in the year 2010, 119 pardons were recommended.

However, under the new administration, the pardon board will only hold three public hearings per year and at these hearings only 33 individuals will have the chance to plead their case before the pardon board. Regardless of the number of request for clemency, this means less than 100 people will have the chance to receive a pardon each year.

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X-OFFENDERS—From left: Dean Williams and Wayne Jacobs take participants through the process of applying for a pardon. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“We’re going to continue to do what we do and hopefully at some point we’ll do some organizing around it. There needs to be some direct action on the pardon board to go back to the old system,” said Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of X-offenders for Community Empowerment in Philadelphia. “This process, when the prior administration was in office, we had eight public hearings a year. Now that this administration is in we have four a year and only 33 will be heard (at each hearing).”

Jacobs asks that ex-offenders be referred to as people who were formerly convicted.

Without a pardon, many formerly convicted people find themselves unable to find employment. In light of this reality, the group XCE is working to lessen the barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

“I’m a formerly convicted person. I have over 30 years going in and out of the jailhouse. Millions of us are getting convicted everyday, getting disenfranchised. I felt our community needed an activist organization to work for our interests,” Jacobs said. “We noticed there was a large segment of the population who were crime free for 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years that were being judged on their past history not their current history.”

XCE, which was founded in 2000, works to remove the legal barriers to employment, housing, education, public benefits, jury service, and driver’s license restoration, as well as to increase voter participation. At a “Pardon Me” workshop hosted at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh on June 16, Jacobs and local XCE Director Dean Williams met with formerly convicted participants to walk them through the process of requesting a pardon. When one receives a pardon, the question have you been convicted of a crime is taken off the employment application.

“They did some research on people who have been formerly convicted and on their likelihood to reoffend. If a person is home for four years or more, they are as likely to reoffend as anyone who has never been convicted of a crime,” Jacobs said. “They deserve a second chance because they earned it. When they talk about people who have been formerly convicted, they lump us all into one class.”

Since pardons are often hard to come by, XCE is tackling the issue of employment from another angle. Earlier this year in Philadelphia, as part of their “Ban the box” campaign, the group worked to pass legislation requiring the removal of the question on applications asking about a person’s criminal history.

“We have been successful at getting issues addressed for our people. ‘Ban the box’ gives them a second chance. It takes the box off the application,” Jacobs said. “The question would be asked, but towards the end of the process. Employers would know who they’re hiring.”

District 9 Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess proposed similar legislation in April, but it did not gain traction in city council. Jacobs said the locally proposed legislation was inadequate because it only pertained to city employees.

“That bill is dead. It only had the hiring of city employees and most of what the city does is contract out, so it would’ve never had an impact. We want to include vendors, grantees, and if the city has the power, private employees,” Jacobs said. “The bill that was introduced was not strong enough or adequate. It neglected to include a lot of other opportunities. By the bill not having those types of things included, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Despite his work with the formerly convicted, Jacobs has never applied for a pardon from the governor for himself.

“I have not applied because I don’t have a need to. My background helps me rather than hurts me because I work with formerly convicted people,” Jacobs said. “I might do it one day just to do it, but I don’t need to.”

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