DENVER – Colorado Springs resident Heidi Sharp has beaten her addiction to methamphetamine, but she still can’t seem to escape her criminal past.
Despite trading her meth habit to pursue a degree in addiction counseling, Sharp has struggled to find employment.
In the eyes of the recovery world, Sharp appears to be doing everything right. She has come to believe that a power greater than herself could restore her to sanity; she’s pursued a degree, and she’s tried to find employment where she can – usually in the field of sales.
But a 2011 felony conviction for conspiracy to commit theft – a charge related to her dark seven-year battle with addiction – has held her back from experiencing more promising employment. The situation intensified on New Year’s Eve when the Colorado Springs sales firm she worked for closed its doors.
“Since then, when I apply for places, they just don’t accept anyone who is a felon,” Sharp said. “I could always work at McDonald’s, but I have a mortgage to pay.”
State lawmakers may try to address the issue this year with legislation that would prohibit many private sector employers from asking about a person’s criminal background on an application, without first offering them an interview.
Colorado law already prohibits asking the question on applications for many state jobs.
Supporters of the effort to extend the law to the private sector acknowledge that criminal background checks are required for some jobs, so exemptions would exist.
“My goal is to help people become productive members of society,” said Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, who intends to sponsor the bill this year. “If they have been convicted, they’ve done their time, what we want to do is at least allow them to have the first steps so their résumé doesn’t automatically go into the recycle bin.”
Colorado isn’t the only state to pursue such legislation. Seven other states have enacted similar bills.
Some proponents refer to the movement as “Ban the Box,” referring to the criminal background box on job applications. But McCann says it’s more about “responsible re-entry.”
Pushing for the legislation is the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Executive Director Claire Levy, a former state lawmaker, said as much as 25 percent of the population grapples with “poor choices” from a past life that come back to haunt in the form of a conviction.
“The climate is really ripe for this because there is so much focus on reducing over-incarceration, recognizing that it is a waste of money,” Levy said. “The research is very clear that having a job is one of the strongest predictors of whether you are going to succeed or fail when you leave prison. This is a really important, effective thing to do.”
Supporters, however, acknowledge that they can’t prohibit employers from conducting any criminal background checks. For one thing, in the digital age, numerous databases are easily available online.
Some employers have also voluntarily banned the question on applications, including Koch Industries Inc., led by conservative billionaires the Koch brothers. The move by Koch Industries last year underscores that it is not just a liberal-driven movement. Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot and Bed Bath & Beyond have also “banned the box.”
Still, it’s unlikely that the legislation would gain the support of the business community in Colorado.
“You have employers that are hiring many, many employees at one time,” explained Loren Furman, senior vice president for state and federal relations for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry. “If you don’t have a way to know what that person’s background truly is, then you’re going to have to interview every single one of those people, and you’re going to have to ask them exactly, ‘have you been convicted of a crime?’ It puts quite a huge administrative burden on employers.”
But for Bayfield resident David, the legislation can’t come fast enough. David declined to provide his last name, citing the fact that he is still running from the stigma of his 1986 child-abuse conviction, related to a complicated divorce at the time. David received a deferred judgment in the Texas case, but even the deferred judgment was enough to follow him.
“Over the years I have had to start over in my career way too many times,” David said. “I was able to do it, but it was hard.
“Sometimes folks just need a hand to get restarted,” he added. “Why make it harder than it needs to be?”