Phoenix, AZ (written by Jahna Berry/Arizona Republic) -- Job seekers with rap sheets always have struggled to find work because of their criminal records. But extreme competition for jobs in the weak economy and increasingly sophisticated background checks are making it harder than ever.
It isn't just violent offenders and other felons newly released from prison who are being rejected by Arizona's employers. A misdemeanor or an old conviction is enough to cost a person a chance at landing a job. And tens of thousands of working-age Arizonans have that kind of record.
The recession and a grindingly slow economic recovery mean that most hiring managers have a big pool of applicants with clean backgrounds, making employers selective about new workers. Even entry-level positions or manual-labor jobs that would be a typical workforce re-entry point for felons have dried up, labor-market analysts say.
Most employers require applicants to list any felony convictions, and even a more minor brush with the law may not stay buried. The Internet has made criminal records easier to find, even when the offenses are old or occurred in other states.
The issue of offenders struggling to find jobs has become so acute that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently updated its rules on how employers should weigh an applicant's criminal record.
Ryan Sanford, 25, of Chandler, knows firsthand how hard it is to get back into the workforce. Sanford finished a four-year prison sentence for forgery, burglary and auto theft in March but has been unable to find a job.
"It makes it almost twice as difficult, just having a criminal record," Sanford said. "Not only do I have the felonies, I have a four-year employment gap."
Job seekers already face tough odds: Arizona's unemployment rate is gradually falling, but it is still high. In April, 8.2 percent of Arizonans, or about 223,700 prospective job candidates, were actively looking for work.
Over the years, voters have pressed for stiffer penalties for many offenses. As a result, more people in the workforce have had a brush with the law, whether it's an arrest for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor traffic violation or a felony conviction for drunken driving or drug-related crimes.
About 12 million to 14 million working-age people in the U.S. in 2008 had some kind of felony conviction, according to an estimate by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
There are no figures on how many Arizonans have criminal records, but it has been growing rapidly. Arizona imposes some of the longest sentences of any state for a variety of crimes. Over the past three decades, Arizona's population has grown 11/2 times, to just under 6.4 million people. The state's prison population has grown five times as fast.
If offenders can't find jobs, it can cause problems to cascade.
"Lack of employment is a significant risk factor for predicting criminal behavior," said Thomas O'Connell, deputy chief of administration for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department.
"When someone maintains employment, this demonstrates stability, provides a source for positive social interactions and provides a means for financial stability, including the ability to support a family and meet their financial obligations."
The ability to find work affects all types of offenders. Felons who have served prison time face the biggest challenge, but in the current economy, it can be equally hard for people with misdemeanors to get jobs, employment experts say.
"I know that people are more confident when they have a misdemeanor than when they have a felony," said Frantz Beasley, a former felon who leads a new non-profit, AZ Common Ground, that helps workers with criminal records.
But they shouldn't be, Beasley and other workforce experts say.
Misdemeanor offenses can prevent someone from landing a job, especially when the offense is related to the field or type of work. For example, if an applicant has a misdemeanor forgery conviction, it's unlikely that a company will hire that person to handle consumer transactions.
Other misdemeanors, such as domestic-violence convictions, make it difficult to get work with many employers, said Nicki Noel-Stern, recruitment director for Phoenix employment firm All About People.
Workers who have felony convictions have an even tougher time. Competition for scarce jobs has made the situation more difficult. Some employers who used to hire workers with criminal convictions have stopped doing so.
Kevin Williams, 57, of Tempe, said he was a temporary worker for an aircraft maker's receiving department for nearly two years and was invited to apply for a permanent position in 2011. His application turned up a bad-checks conviction from 1989. He was fired from his temporary position and escorted off the property, Williams said.
Williams said he was up-front about his conviction with the temporary agency that had placed him at the company. Since the initial background check went back only 10 years, the old offense did not show up. The check for the permanent job went back further.
"After 20 years, this comes up," said Williams, who has worked for other companies since he finished his probation in 1991. "Don't they believe in rehabilitation?"
In December, Williams said he was hired as a temporary assembler at a local solar-power manufacturing company. He was recently hired permanently.
"People can turn their lives around," Williams said. "That's why you have people doing drugs and killing each other. They can't find a job, and they give up."
At non-profit Arizona Women's Education and Employment, they see the trend firsthand, CEO Marie Sullivan said.
Before the recession, about 15 percent of AWEE clients who found a job had to go back to the organization to get help to find a second job. Now, that percentage is about 25 percent, Sullivan said.
No easy solution
Under the law, employers are not allowed to use a blanket prohibition against hiring people with criminal backgrounds. Each applicant must be evaluated case by case, said Justine Lisser, senior attorney and spokeswoman for the EEOC in Washington, D.C.
The Internet and widespread use of third-party companies that conduct background checks have made the records easier for employers to find.
"Because of the growing use of criminal-background checks, the EEOC is concerned that people are being automatically refused consideration for employment without looking at the individual's credentials for the job in question," Lisser said.
Hiring mangers must take into account the type of offense and what kind of work the applicant would do, in addition to the length of time that has passed since the conviction, she said.
If employers improperly use background checks to screen applicants, EEOC officials say, it can have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic job applicants. African-Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated at much higher rates than Whites, EEOC officials say.
In Arizona, there is no way to completely erase an adult criminal record, said David Derickson, a criminal-defense attorney and retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge.
After serving the sentence, an offender can petition a court to set aside the conviction so he or she can have some civil rights restored, such as the right to vote. It doesn't undo the conviction or erase it from records.
While having convictions set aside might make offenders think they are showing a will to rehabilitate, Beasley of AZ Common Ground said what is more important is that they have the right attitude and mind-set when looking for work.
Beasley was released from prison in July 2009 after serving 14 years for kidnapping and armed robbery. A month after he was released, he found two jobs, one as a driver for a company that cleaned foreclosure homes and one at a music-staging company.
Beasley, who last year started the non-profit that helps offenders with felonies and misdemeanors find work, said all workers have limitations that are part of life, such as age.
"We happen to have a specific one called a felony, one that we learn the rules of how to navigate life with it," he said.
Many agencies help people with criminal records, Dianna Jackson told two dozen inmates at Maricopa County's Tent City Jail on Wednesday. Jackson and other career counselors from St. Joseph the Worker, a non-profit that helps the homeless and the poor find work, go to Tent City every two weeks to present job-search seminars.
Depending on a person's criminal record, "many doors may be shut," Jackson said in an interview. "But we don't focus on that," she said.
The key is for job seekers to remain positive and persistent, she said, adding, "We'll show you how to prepare."