'Ban the Box' offers felons a second chance

When Waleisah Wilson was a manager at a nonprofit agency, she thought most felons were just lazy people who didn't want to work. That was until she spent a year incarcerated for arson.

Since being released in 2011, Wilson said she hasn't been able to find work despite having two master's degrees, extensive work experience and credits toward a doctorate. Most employers have told her they don't hire ex-felons or people on probation. Others have rejected her for being over-qualified, she said.

So Wilson, a Columbus native now living back in the city, launched a nonprofit agency called NewLife-Second Chance Outreach Inc., which helps felons make a smoother transition into society.

"There are a lot of people who have done one-time offenses; there are a lot of people who were educated and employed before they got incarcerated," she said during a recent interview. "And we're just asking that people be a little more open-minded about hiring people with criminal records. Because 99 percent of them will be more successful if they have a job, and it not only reduces their chances of going back to prison, but it also reduces your chances of being a victim of the crime they're going to commit."

Wilson, 39, is not the only one to reach that conclusion. Since 2004, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have been participating in a "Ban the Box" campaign, calling for legislation to prevent employers from discriminating against ex-convicts applying for jobs.

And in 2014, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians identified the disclosure of prior convictions on applications as a barrier to employment, recommending that the state General Assembly implement "Ban the Box" hiring policies.

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal responded by signing an executive order banning the state from requiring job seekers to disclose their criminal histories in the initial application stage. The order prohibits use of an application form that "inappropriately excludes and discriminates against qualified job applicants." It also bans the use of a person's criminal record as an automatic bar to employment, except in the case of "sensitive government positions in which a criminal history would be an immediate disqualification."

According to the document, about 97 percent of people sentenced to prison will eventually return to society, and more than 1,300 ex-offenders re-enter communities across the state on a monthly basis without employment.

"'Ban the Box' is a policy intended to improve public safety, enhance workforce development, and provide increased state employment opportunities for applicants with criminal convictions on their records by removing the criminal history related questions from the initial stage of the state employment application process," the order said. "Such policies allow returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer."

Susan Cooper, executive director of the Urban League of Greater Columbus, said the governor's executive order is a step in the right direction.

"How can an individual become self-sufficient and provide for themselves if he or she does not have employment and or a consistent flow of income?" she asked. "It takes income to make it, to survive, to provide and then to thrive. Without gainful employment, it is difficult to break the poverty cycle. Therefore, we must train, educate, create jobs and put returning citizens back to work."

While Wilson sees the executive order as progress, she said there's still more work to be done.

"It's a great step; however, that's only limited to the government jobs," she said. "The biggest step that would actually do justice would be on a more local level. Several different cities have actually passed local 'Ban the Box' initiatives where it's actually in the private sector. And I would love for that to be something worked on here in Columbus."

She said some people say "Ban the Box" won't help because the person's criminal background could come up in the interview and employers do background checks that could impact the hiring process.

"However, I do believe the power of a testimony is very powerful and being able to explain yourself is an awesome thing," she said. "We've seen here that a lot of people will come in with kidnapping charges, but they didn't really kidnap anybody, they just put their arm across a door and detained a person. A person may have had a traffic stop and because they had a gun in the car, they were charged with a violent crime of gun possession."

In her case, Wilson said she had no previous criminal history, but was charged with arson when her mother's car caught fire. She said law enforcement authorities accused her of starting the fire to cash in on her mother's life insurance policy, a charge that she still denies.

Wilson said her mother died from injuries sustained in the fire. Wilson was never charged with manslaughter.

A court-appointed attorney, however, told her she faced the possibility of 25 years in prison on the arson charge if she didn't agree to six months in boot camp. Wilson accepted the deal and received 10 years probation on the arson charge and another five years for giving false statements to police, according to reports. She went to boot camp after already spending six months in jail.

Prior to that, Wilson said she was a program and community living manager at a nonprofit in Macon, where she oversaw 35 employees. She said she had a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

After being released from boot camp in 2011, Wilson said, she earned one master's degree in human services from Capella University and another master's in nonprofit management and leadership from Walden University. Wilson said she began pursuing a doctorate in business management at Capella in 2012, but stress and homelessness derailed her plans.

Wilson, who has a 12-year-old daughter, said she still doesn't have steady income. She and her daughter have been living with a friend and surviving on child support and government assistance, she said. In the meantime, she said she has been providing free services to felons through her nonprofit organization, which has received small donations from people in the community.

Wilson said the program provides workshops on resume writing, interviewing skills, confidence building, budgeting and dressing for success. She plans to have an empowerment conference for ex-offenders on May 26 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road. The event is only open to ex-offenders and they must RSVP. The organization is also planning a job fair for ex-convicts in June.

Wilson said she has helped 34 people get hired and one person who returned to school since starting the program. Twenty-one people have been dropped from the program for not following through with job referrals or refraining from criminal activity.

"There are some who don't want to work and some who don't want help and want to continue doing what they're doing," she said. "We're here to help the ones who want help and just need a little mentorship to show them what to do."

Wilson said she's willing to tell her story because she hopes it can help someone else.

"I want to be able show the community that ex-offenders don't all look the same and a lot of us are good people," she said.

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.