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Felony Box Ban Isn’t Enough for Advocates

Debate continues over the city's plan to remove the felony question from job applications.

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The ban-the-box ordinance passed unanimously by City Council last week was created with people like Terry Johnson in mind.

The measure removes questions about past felony convictions from certain city job applications — in theory eliminating a barrier to employment for Johnson, who got out of prison in May 2011 following a five-year stint on drug charges.

Like many felons, Johnson says finding employment is the most difficult part of starting life over after a prison sentence. Since his release, he says, he's filled out countless applications, been to 17 interviews and "never even got one call back."

Is he or anyone else hopeful that the city's initiative will make much of a difference in finding employment for more people with felony records? Not really.

"You have to be hopeful," says King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia chapter the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I don't want to sound completely pessimistic, but, completely, I am. I have no faith in the private or public sector to do anything that's of benefit to the citizenry here."

Khalfani calls the measure's passage a "small, symbolic step," and he applauds city leaders for embracing it. But he doubts it will make it any easier for former offenders in Richmond to find jobs.

Because it exempts public safety, financial jobs and positions that generally deal with confidential information, the ordinance leaves the felony-conviction questions on about 50 percent of city job applications, city spokeswoman Tammy Hawley says.

Richard Walker, the founder of Bridging the Gap of Virginia, which works to restore voting rights for felons, also acknowledges the ordinance's limitations. But he's hopeful that private employers in the region, particularly contractors and vendors who work with the city, will adopt similar practices.

Regardless, Walker and Khalfani say they'll continue to push measures aimed at making re-entry easier for felons. Walker says he plans to target legislation that prohibits felons from moving into public housing projects, which he says in many cases separates them from family, children and stability.

Khalfani says he remains focused on the coming gubernatorial contest and affecting changes at the state level. "We're going to hold these candidates accountable," he says.

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