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Felons say they're unfairly locked out of job market

Sometimes the hardest part of cleaning up your life is getting someone to give you the chance.

Convicted felons in Jackson County and around the country face an uphill battle trying to land a job, and the longer they go without one, the more likely they are to turn back toward a life of crime, research shows.

"I think if given the opportunity, most felons could prove themselves as more than capable to work anywhere," said 24-year-old Keith Farnsworth. "Your past doesn't necessarily define the person you are today."

Farnsworth was convicted in 2012 of first-degree theft in Josephine County. He's enrolled in OnTrack Inc's Dad's Program, which is designed to help fathers recovering from addiction or a criminal past regain the right to parent their children.

He and other felons in the program interviewed for this story say they firmly believe that checking "yes" on the criminal conviction box of an application dooms any chances of getting the job.

"If that box is checked, your application goes in the pile over there," said Sean Merzlak, 29.

Jimmy Page, 30, a California native, said he understands why employers would discriminate against felons.

"If I had a business, trying to be a successful business owner, I would hire the kid right out of college, rather than some kid who just got out of prison," Page said. "In reality, who would you hire?"

Felonies cover a variety of crimes. Some more serious, such as first-degree assault, rape, burglary, murder and child neglect, and some less serious, such as theft, fourth-degree assault and a variety of drug crimes.

Page, who said he has been convicted of numerous violent crimes in California, is on the opposite side of the spectrum of Farnsworth, whose theft conviction is the only felony on his record, Oregon Judicial Department records show.

But both are often treated the same when it comes to job applications, said Maurice Emsellem, a program director at National Employment Law Project.

It's one of the first questions on most job applications: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

NELP is leading a push toward a national initiative to bar employers from asking the question on the initial job application.

In Oregon, Multnomah County and the city of Eugene have agreed to put off asking whether applicants have a criminal conviction until later in the interview process.

There are a dozen other states with laws requiring employers to "ban the box," Emsellem said, and several more counties and municipalities across the country have also signed on. Even large companies such as Wal-Mart and Target have stopped asking the criminal history question on their applications.

"It's really a push to kind of help level the playing field, to create a fair process so that people with criminal records are not immediately denied," Emsellem said. " 'Ban the box' is not saying you cannot conduct a background check. It's saying that employers have to take the question off the application and ask it later in the process."

Employers in the United States already are required to inform applicants that they may be excluded from consideration for a position based on past criminal conduct and give them an opportunity to explain why the employer should hire them anyway, under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Enforcement Guidance.

Emsellem argues there is little oversight to guarantee employers are following the requirement.

Judy Clark, president of Oregon-based HR Answers Inc., said she feels the EEOC rules are sufficient.

"There are some very obvious circumstances in which a previous conviction, especially a felony conviction, is absolutely crucial for an employer to consider," Clark said. "Why should I as an employer have to wait until we're almost all the way through to ask, when I don't know that as an employer I ought to spend more time on you?"

Cody Daigneault, 25, who landed a felony conviction after selling marijuana in Jackson County in 2008, said he would like to see Oregon pass a law requiring employers to put off the criminal-history question until further along in the interview process.

"(Employers) just discriminate against your past, rather than look at what sort of asset you can be," Daigneault said. "I don't think there are a lot of people that are really willing to give people a chance."

For felons who have dedicated a span of their lives to criminal activity, a lack of job experience and skills can also hold them back, said Travis Cavalli, on-site director of the Dad's Program.

"There is typically not a lot of work history for someone who has been convicted of felonies to point toward," Cavalli said. "And many of the jobs they are able to get are menial jobs with low wages."

Which is also tough to deal with, Merzlak said.

"You have to jump down to the bottom of the barrel and work back up. ... Sometimes people decide crime is easier," he said.

That's the kind of recidivism that needs to stop, said Jackson County Circuit Judge Adam Peterson.

Peterson, a former prosecutor, made it clear that he is "not a bleeding heart. ... I am no softie," before adding, "we need to create a scenario in which we do not set (felons) up for failure."

Probation and parole officers in Jackson County are charged with helping their clients find work and housing, and live life on the straight and narrow, but a lack of resources in that department is a concern, Peterson said.

"It's a community problem, and it's one that we need to get serious about," he said.

To help solve the problem, Peterson says he looks toward House Bill 3194, passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2013. Among a long list of criminal justice amendments, the bill created a post-prison supervision reentry court.

Although the Legislature has yet to set aside funding for it, the new law would enable judges to require those on parole and probation to appear before the reentry court regularly. Judges also could establish required goals such as getting a job, finding housing and staying clean, Peterson said.

The reentry court could provide accountability, he said, and might make employers feel more comfortable hiring felons knowing they are being regularly monitored.

"I understand why people in the business industry are reluctant to hire people with felonies, but I believe these folks want to do well," Peterson said. "When an individual has a job, there is a pride factor with that. You're held responsible. That means a lot to an individual."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.

From left, Keith Farnsworth, 24, Cody Daigneault, 25, OnTrack on-site director Travis Cavalli, T.J. Stewart, 24, and Sean Merzlak, 29, discuss how hard it is to find a job Friday at OnTrack Inc.'s Dad's Program. - Bob Pennell