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Published: 10 August 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – After trying unsuccessfully for eight years to find rental housing in Orange County following her release from state prison, Robin Keeble finally decided she had had enough. The little box on rental applications that asked whether the applicant had ever had a felony conviction was not going to stop her from putting a roof over her head.

Keeble went to a local drug store and bought a book of receipts. Within an hour, she had made up a year's worth of rental receipts that she presented to her next prospective landlord. It worked.

That was 13 years ago, but "it's no different today here in California," said Keeble, 55, referring to a lack of statewide regulations that would ban prospective employers and landlords from arbitrarily denying employment and housing to people because of their past mistakes.

"The system perpetuates a culture of dishonesty among those who want a second chance," said Keeble, who got hers when the Orange County Health Department appreciated her work as a volunteer for them and put her on payroll a few years ago.

Forty-five-year-old Deirdre Hart Wilson, who served a seven-year term for felony child abuse between 2003 and 2009, and was stripped of her parental rights of five of her six children, faced a similar situation as Keeble. It was only because of her parents' willingness to co-sign a rental apartment application upon her release that she was able to get a Bay Area address. Wilson currently works as a coordinator with the non-profit, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and is fighting to prevent ex-felons from facing the discrimination she did.

"These criminal records follow you for the rest of your lives because the box on those applications persists," observed Matthew Martenyi, 62, with the grassroots prisoners rights group, All Of Us Or None.

Martenyi, a former San Francisco-based real estate attorney of 18 years, got out of federal prison in 1996 after serving a three-year term on a drug conspiracy conviction. Because he lost his license at the time of his conviction, it could take him another four to five years to get it reinstated after he retakes the bar exams for which he will be eligible next February.

"I will have to remain in purgatory for some more time," said Martenyi, who is working with a number of civil rights groups to remove barriers faced by California's ex-prisoners in order to make their re-entry into the mainstream community easier.

Martenyi volunteers at lawyers' offices these days or contracts with some others to put real estate projects together. The income he makes allows him to live on his boat, renting berth space in the San Francisco Bay for $500 a month.

Bills to Ban the Box

Earlier this year, California Assemblymembers Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) and Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland) introduced a "ban the box" bill (AB 1831) that would prohibit local governments in the state "from inquiring into or considering the criminal history of an applicant, or including any inquiry about criminal history on any initial employment application." The bill did not make it out of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. Dickinson has vowed he will try again next year.

But a number of major U.S. cities and counties, including a few in California, have recently adopted their own fair hiring policies to remove barriers to employment of people with criminal records, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Alameda County, Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, Compton and San Francisco are among them.

By removing this question, supporters of the ban-the-box movement believe job applicants can be sure that they will not be automatically excluded for consideration for a job because of their past mistakes and give applicants with criminal pasts a fair shot at obtaining employment.

Linda Evans, an organizer with All Of Us Or None and an ex-felon herself, said employers should first consider whether it is actually necessary to do a background check for the job that is available.

"We want people to be truthful on their application, but there should be a level playing field for everyone," Martenyi said, admitting that there had been times after his parole ended when he had lied on his application in order to snag a job in the retail industry.

One in Four Californians Have Conviction Record

About 65 million ex-prisoners in the United States currently carry the burden of a criminal record, seven million of them in California alone, according to NELP.

"That means one in four Californians have a conviction record," said Evans. "And they're mostly black and brown people."

"That's why we believe our movement is a civil rights and human rights issue," added Evans' colleague, Jerry Elster.

Like Wilson and Keeble, hundreds of thousands of ex-felons face the civil consequences of their convictions that put structural barriers in their efforts to re-assimilate into society. While all of them are entitled to Medi-Cal – the federal-state health insurance program for the poor -- some convictions bar them from getting food stamps; others from having access to public housing and school loans. And not only are people barred from voting while in prison they continue to have no voting rights while out on parole.

Samantha Rogers's long rap sheep for drug-related convictions, disqualified her for low-income rental housing in Stockton, where she grew up, and where she hoped to re-start her life after release. A mother of five, she said she couldn't bring herself to check the box just so "I could have a roof over my head."

"Just because I made mistakes once doesn't mean I cannot be a good neighbor and give back to the community," said Rogers, 45, who lives on food stamps and finally managed to get transitional housing in San Francisco recently. Last week, her internship at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children turned into a paid office assistant position.

"LSPC's executive director (Dorsey Nunn) believes that our prison experiences are an asset here," noted Evans.

Forty-two-year-old Kimberly Jeffrey said she kept going in and out of prison for 13 years, her first arrest happening at age 18. Most of her 49 convictions were for petty thefts, she said. The state took six of her seven children away from her. Her youngest, Noel, now 2 ½ years old, was born in prison. Prison officials allowed her to leave him with a church-based organization called "Babies Out Of Bondage" until her release this past March.

Jeffrey's $516-a-month paycheck from CalWORKs barely covers her public housing rent at Bayview Hunters Point (to get that housing, she had to get her uncle, a pastor, to convince the housing authority to overlook her many convictions), diapers for Noel, her utilities bills, and gas and insurance for her 1989 Toyota. The $245 worth of food stamps she gets "goes so fast," she said.

Jeffrey said she would like to move from City College, where she is currently enrolled in one class, to a four-year college, earn a degree in political science and become a human rights activist so she can "talk to senators on justice issues and stuff like that."

But those things seem like a pipe dream for her. For now, she'll be happy to get off of welfare and find herself a job so she and her son can move out of the "blighted and crime-ridden" neighborhood, she said.

"But I know when I start job hunting, I'll be discriminated against," Jeffrey said.

"Now, I feel like a prisoner in the free world," she said.

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