Local News

April 20, 2014

Starting over

Social work student wants second chance for convicted felons

Melissa Clayton had made a wreck of her life and she knew it.

After being addicted to meth for six years, she’d lost her children, her dignity and her outlook for making something of herself.

Sentenced to probation for criminal attempt to manufacture meth in 2006, Clayton said her life changed for much longer than she initially realized when she became a person with a felony charge on her record.

Eight years later, Chuck Smith of the Carter Hope Center in Dalton, where Clayton now volunteers her time, confirms she’s been clean since completing her rehabilitation.

Although her life may be turned around, the consequences of her actions live on. Clayton said having to check “yes” on job applications that asked if she’d ever been convicted of a felony left her struggling as employer after employer refused to give her a second glance. She finally gave up applying for jobs and enrolled in college.

“I’m not saying that I’m a success story, but in a way I am,” she said. “It’s not always black and white. There is a gray area. (A conviction for a nonviolent offense) should not follow us to our death.”

Clayton is one face of a movement spreading across the nation to “ban the box,” a catch phrase referring to eliminating the requirement to disclose criminal history on a job application. Eleven states including Georgia have enacted measures that in some way “ban the box,” and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this month through an executive order authorized some changes aimed at giving people with criminal histories a better chance to get back into society after they’ve served their time.

A new state law requires the Board of Corrections to start a program in which offenders can earn certificates for going through treatment and vocational training while they are in prison. The law also requires the board to set up society re-entry plans they can complete while on probation or parole.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the law states employers demonstrate “due care” when they hire ex-offenders who have earned a treatment completion certificate, thus “providing them a certain level of immunity from negligent hiring liability that often drives hiring decisions.”

Deal also issued an order prohibiting state agencies from asking about criminal history on job applications, except on applications for certain high security jobs.

Travis Johnson, public safety and criminal justice policy adviser to the governor, told the Carrollton Times-Georgian recently that “the governor will implement ‘ban the box’ on the state level, and hope that the private sector follows suit.”

Clayton said those changes will help many people in her situation.

“I am actually very pleased that Gov. Deal makes this a priority,” she said. “I believe he will bring big changes and give many of us the second chance that we are due. I am excited! Now, to convince these corporations to invest in us.”

Clayton said she understands that not everyone who has a criminal history has actually turned their life around, but she wishes state officials would also consider removing certain felony convictions from offenders’ records if after several years they’ve proved they’ve changed. She said she would like the provision to apply only to nonviolent offenders.

“People don’t tend to realize how giving felons an opportunity to move up in the workplace would benefit them,” Clayton said. “People base a decision on a little box, and if they would take 10 minutes” to talk with the person, they might think differently about them, she said.

Smith said Clayton came to Carter Hope to volunteer after she entered the social work program at Dalton State College where she is a student. What started as a requirement to complete her degree has extended into an ongoing relationship in which she continues volunteering with the center several days a week, he said.

“I think anybody that would not hire her because of her criminal background would just be absolutely missing a golden opportunity for a good employee,” he said.

Smith said he can’t vouch for everyone who’s come through treatment and stayed clean some amount of time. Often, recovering addicts haven’t really committed to making a change, he said, but those who have stayed clean for years are significantly less likely to go back to their old habits than people who are still early in their struggles.

He said finding employment after a felony conviction wasn’t as much of an issue before the economic recession that began a few years ago allowed employers as a whole to become more choosy.

“There’s not nearly as many jobs available in the carpet mills. So a lot of the people are having to use temp services to find employment, and some of the temp services have people that say they won’t take anyone that has a criminal record. So it has become more of a problem in the last couple of years,” Smith said.

“That’s my impression of things, that because there are so many people out there seeking employment you can be a little more selective about the people you hire, which really hurts people that have made some mistakes in their life but have already repaid their debt to society.”

Not all employers take that approach.

Teresa Calhoun of Temps Plus Inc. on Emery Street said that in her experience, there are many businesses willing to hire individuals with criminal backgrounds who are otherwise qualified for the job. They’re often entry-level jobs, but for the right applicants they can lead to better employment, she said.

On the flip side, she added, job-seekers with less-than-clean pasts sometimes have yet to fully commit to a new life when they begin looking for employment. Calhoun said she works with applicants to help them regain respect for themselves, ensure they have a sense of discipline and can present an honest best-foot-forward to prospective employers.

“We try to help everybody that comes in, but they’ve got to try to help themselves,” she said.

That help includes counseling job applicants to be honest on their employment screenings. People who have felony convictions are better off saying so up front than to risk being fired from a job when an employer finds out after the fact they lied on their application, she said.

Smith said some employers do take chances on job-seekers with criminal pasts and are disappointed. Their actions can reflect poorly on people who are actually trying to change, he said.

Clayton said she just wishes more employers would take time to learn about otherwise qualified applicants who do have felonies.

“I know it’s one of those situations where it’s a real 50/50 chance when you give somebody a chance,” said Smith, who is a recovering addict himself. “But I see a lot of people that have made some major, major, major mistakes in their life but have turned things around. And I have seen the kind of employees, citizens that these people can turn into when they turn their life around. Sometimes people just being willing to give them a chance is the catalyst that will get that ball rolling even faster.”

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