Paroled from prison in August 2010, Sandra France was bent on finding a job that steered young people away from the drug addiction and drug-related crimes that had her cycling in and out of prison for 35 years.
That job hunt, however, initially bore little fruit for the 50-year-old ex-offender.
Then she heard about Project ReNu, launched in early 2012 by the Brooklyn, NY-based Center for NuLeadership On Urban Solutions to help the formerly incarcerated figure out precisely whether their recorded criminal histories were undercutting their employment prospects and, where possible, boosting the ex-offenders’ image among potential employers.
Project ReNu’s sole counselor—one of four full-time members of NuLeadership’s staff—steered France through a process aimed at equipping ex-offenders with the details of their “records of arrests and procedures” (or RAP sheet) and correcting errors that those documents sometimes contain before a potential employer sees them.
France completed Project ReNu with what she hopes is a ticket for entry into a legitimate world of work with which she is barely familiar: a state-sanctioned “certificate of good conduct” granted to successful Project ReNu clients who, like France, have multiple felony convictions.
(A “certificate of relief” is available to persons with just one felony conviction.)
In addition to that certificate, France received a document detailing her criminal history, including the date and time of her convictions. And she was schooled in how to articulate other aspects of her life, such as her ongoing drug rehabilitation and involvement in peer support groups, her active church membership, and her on-the-job training in the field where she hopes to be hired.
“These documents show how far I came [and] that, although I have been incarcerated and I’ve been on drugs, I’ve been doing a lot of positive things,” said France, who is now interning at an outpatient clinic for substance abusers—a step toward becoming a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor.
Those accumulated documents are a package that can be given, perhaps preemptively, to employers.
With several studies linking gainful employment to lesser rates of criminal recidivism, jobs—and housing—top the list of the most critical material needs of the formerly incarcerated, Shelli Rossman of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. told The Crime Report.
And, notes Rossman, ex-offenders not only require the tools essential for what can be the monumental task of landing a job—especially during a lingering recession when employers have their pick of prospects who’ve never been to prison—but they also need help hanging on to the jobs a fraction of them do manage to get.
“My hunch is that part of the difficulty in job retention is the nature of the job to begin with,” said Rossman, a senior fellow at the Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “These are high turnover, like food service jobs, where … they’re constantly hiring and replacing staff, not just this population.
“These tend to be low-level jobs without benefits. They …not only undermine the individual financially, but also in terms of morale.”
Even so, findings of the Urban Institute’s five-year “Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry” study of ex-offenders in Maryland, Illinois, Ohio and Texas included this one: “Former prisoners who held an in-prison job, participated in job training while incarcerated, earned a GED during prison, and/or participated in an employment program early after release, work a greater percentage of time the first year out than those who did not.”
The key assumption of Project ReNu is that paid wages will reduce the likelihood that a previously convicted person will return to crime and to prison, , says Divine Pryor, executive director of NuLeadership, which is housed in the same Brooklyn building as the agency where parolee France is interning.
Another foundational principle is that if potential employers can see that formerly incarcerated job applicants are confronting their past, and can articulate their achievements during a job interview, then that forthrightness just might work in the applicant’s favor, says Prior, whose organization offers a broad menu of prisoner re-entry services and criminal justice policy programs for both juveniles and adults.
“The best way to empower yourself is to know everything that other people know about you,” he adds. “If you’ve ever been arrested for anything, it’s on your RAP sheet—every single encounter you’ve had with law enforcement that causes you to be fingerprinted.”
According to Prior, the “labyrinth of challenges” facing ex-offenders as they re-enter society can include correcting errors that may have been made by the system or have cropped up through other means, such as identity theft.
Building a Narrative
Eloni Blake, Project ReNu’s director, explains that the process involves building a “narrative around your history.”
“You need to know what your background is,” she says. “You will never want to go on an interview and be sitting in front of someone who’s looking at a piece of paper and knows more about you than you do. You risk being denied a job because of your omissions, because you don’t know exact dates and locations (of crimes committed).”
Opened in 2005 at Medgar Evers College, NuLeadership eventually became the first academic think tank formed and run by ex-offenders with PhDs. In 2011, it relocated to nearby offices in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
NuLeadership’s national advisory network includes formerly incarcerated, advanced college-degree-holding executives of such groups as the Fortune Society in New York and Men United For a Better Philadelphia.
In its short life so far, Project ReNu has counseled more than 50 people, helping in many cases to repair mistakes in RAP sheets that could destroy chances of getting a job.
The mistakes range from failure to note cases that had been taken to trial but thrown out by a judge; violations that were not felony offenses, but minor infractions; and declined prosecutions and acquittals
Certificate of Good Conduct
After a RAP sheet is repaired, the successful Project ReNu client receives from New York State either a “certificate of relief” or a “certificate of good conduct.”
“This shows that you have taken the initiative to be rehabilitated,” Blake said, adding that misdemeanors do not factor into the certifications.
NuLeadership is trying to make the formerly incarcerated aware—through, among other avenues, flyers, community newspapers and Pacifica Radio’s WBAI, where NuLeadership founder and exec director Eddie Ellis hosts his weekly “On the Count” broadcast—that they can dispose of errors on their RAP sheet, a fact that Blake believes eludes many of them.
The organization, which relies on philanthropic and government funding and contracts, also foots the bill for RAP sheet repair. It includes $61.75 for fingerprinting by New York State’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, and $10 per application to dispose of an error.
Of the 50 clients who have had their RAP sheets repaired, the number of errors per client has not exceeded eight, says Blake.
She adds that NuLeadership has not begun assessing the extent to which its efforts keep Project ReNu clients on the job.
The bulk of those clients are former drug addicts whose convictions, like France’s, involved crimes to support their habits, according to Blake.
“But what has really irked me were the RAP sheets with crimes like ‘intent to obtain transportation without paying,’ jumping a turnstile, which is an A-misdemeanor,” Blake notes. “A train ride costs $2.50. Why would that [crime] not fall under trespassing, which is just a violation? I find some of this egregious.”
Correcting a RAP sheet also can take months. For some, that presents an entirely different kind of obstacle.
“Sitting down and doing this can dig up past histories … Some folks do get discouraged,” Blake says.
For France, the process has been worth it.
“Today, I have so much remorse about what I did back then,” she says. “God forbid that I took somebody’s money out the bank and that’s what they needed to pay a mortgage and that was what they needed to feed their kids.
“I feel messed up about that. I try to do a good deed every day. Being able to tell someone what I know is on my criminal record helps me to show them how much I have changed.”
Freelance journalist Katti Gray covers criminal justice, health, higher education and other topics for a range of national and regional magazines, newspapers and online news sites. She is a contributing editor of The Crime Report, and welcomes comments from readers.