How California Wants To Help Ex-Offenders Get Jobs At Community Colleges

East Los Angeles College is one of nine campuses in the L.A. Community College District. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

In a bid to help more ex-offenders get jobs, the California Community College Chancellor's Office is urging the state's 115 community colleges to wait until they're ready to make a job offer before asking applicants about any criminal history.

College officials said the change is part of a statewide "ban the box" movement meant to reduce the number of ex-offenders discouraged from applying for jobs, as well as an acknowledgement of flaws in the criminal justice system.

"I think it's well understood, generally, that the criminal justice system tends to incarcerate people of color at higher rates than non-minorities," said Marc LeForestier, the general counsel of the chancellor's office.

"If you carry that forward to the hiring process based on people's criminal history then you can expect to have, I think, a discriminatory impact on communities of color," he said.

The governing bodies of the state's community colleges are expected to adopt the chancellor's guidance. The recommendation is part of a systemwide effort by the state's public higher education systems to help formerly incarcerated students earn a degree and thus hopefully avoid returning to prison. A recent audit faulted the state for not doing more to reduce a 50 percent recidivism rate in the last decade.

College students know how important it is to apply for a job they hope will be a foundation for their professional careers. That process is doubly important for ex-offenders, because many feel having to disclose their criminal history up front has led their applications to end up in the trash.

Being able to get a job is critical for ex-offenders hoping to launch a career, said Larry Frank, president of L.A. Trade Tech College.

"If you have work history that you can show that you've been successful, it just feels like that much less of a risk for another employer to say, 'OK this person has a work history since whatever happened to them and it's easier for us to give them a shot,'" he said.

Frank said that about 2,000 of the 22,000 students on his campus have a criminal history, likely the highest proportion of any community college in the state.

"We at the community colleges, as well as the four-year [schools], have been working very hard to provide the formerly incarcerated ... an opportunity to get their education and contribute to society," said Monte Perez, president of L.A. Mission College.

Perez said employers sometimes would use the criminal history box on an application to weed out applicants, while many applicants weed themselves out of jobs when they see the box. He thinks the change will encourage more to apply for campus jobs.

"And once they're in the pool when that information occurs, then we say to the candidate, can you give us an explanation, and then if we accept the explanation, they're available for hiring," he said.

There's no official tally of how many of the state's 2 million community college students have served time in prison, but administrators estimate there are thousands. They say the number is growing, due in part to campus support groups and outreach into prisons.