Life Outside the Box
On Memorial Day 2001, 19-year-old Jacqueline Conn aimed her red Honda Civic at two people sitting on the curb outside of her North Austin apartment complex. In her sights: Conn’s ex-boyfriend and his newly reacquainted ex-girlfriend, Rose Stahl. The two were laughing, perhaps at Conn’s expense, she thought.
Conn accelerated. Seconds later, there were bodies underneath her car’s floorboards.
As she sped away from the scene, Conn remembers seeing her ex-boyfriend stand up, screaming and pointing, from the rearview mirror. Stahl lay on the ground, bloody and limp. Conn asked herself: “What the fuck did I just do?”
That moment has haunted Conn over the last 14 years. It haunted her when she was convicted of aggravated assault in March 2003, sentenced to six years and led from the courtroom in handcuffs as her mother and grandmother sobbed. It haunted her when she worked blisters digging ditches in state prison, where she’d begin community college and land an early parole after serving just over three years. It haunted her when she had to wear an ankle monitor after enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin.
And it still haunted Conn last winter, when she was fired from her position as project manager for the vice provost of design at Carnegie Mellon University, where she’d earned a graduate degree in public policy.
Conn didn’t lose her job because of ineptitude, or because she was an unreliable employee. She lost her job because the state of Pennsylvania changed its policy on criminal background checks. One day, she was a professional earning a paycheck. The next, she was back to being a former felon and headed home to Austin.
“In my first month of getting fired, I was just eating croutons out of the box. Like, what am I doing with my life?” Conn told the Observer. “I guess this is what unemployed felons do.”
Nationwide, Conn’s dilemma is more common than many may think. The FBI keeps the fingerprints of more than 70 million Americans on file in its master criminal database. In Texas, the Department of Public Safety keeps records on 12 million Texans with criminal records — including everyone from folks who were arrested but never prosecuted to those who’ve been convicted and served time.
Now, a grassroots movement to help Americans with criminal records secure good jobs has begun to gain momentum across the country. It’s called “Ban the Box,” and it aims to persuade employers to remove or delay questions about a job applicant’s criminal record.Rebecca Vallas, a policy director at the Center for American Progress, told the Observer that “no criminal record is too old or too inconsequential” to serve as a barrier to employment. According to her group’s research, nine out of 10 employers conduct background checks, as do four out of five landlords.
When an ex-offender is obliged to check “yes” in the conviction history question on job or housing applications — the “box” — it increases their potential for a subsequent lifetime of decreased earnings. An arrest is one of the biggest impediments to employment, Vallas said, even more so than having a GED instead of a high school diploma or a long spell of joblessness. And according to The Center for Economic and Policy Research, the economic losses among people with criminal records is estimated at as much as $65 billion per year.
President Barack Obama announced in early November that he will order federal employers to ban the box in the early stages of the application and hiring process, requiring the federal government’s human resources department to “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.”
Across the country, 100 cities in 19 states have implemented variations on criminal history box bans. Large corporations such as Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot have also enacted similar corporate policies.
Essentially, “Ban the Box” is an effort to allow those with past convictions to have their job qualifications and personalities evaluated before discussing their criminal history, and it’s catching on in Texas — Dallas state Representative Eric Johnson has promised to bring his proposed box ban, which stalled in the Lege earlier this year, back to the Capitol in 2017.
Dallas County adopted a box ban policy on Tuesday, making it only the third Texas government entity to do so. In 2008, Austin and Travis County enacted box ban initiatives. Those policies only apply to employment with the city and the county, and only in limited cases, depending on the responsibilities associated with an advertised position.
But some Austin officials now want the city to go even further. In late September, City Council member Greg Casar announced his support for what he called “fair chance” hiring policies in the private sector, preventing private employers from asking job applicants whether they have a criminal history on their initial employment applications.
In October, Austin’s Economic Security Committee voted 3-0 to move forward with the “fair chance” ordinance, and Casar’s hope is that by this winter, Austin will be the first city in Texas with a comprehensive fair chance hiring policy.
Despite Obama’s November announcement, the issue is still relatively new in the public eye, and so far the pushback against such policies has been relatively weak. But some private employers and right-wing organizations, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have spoken out against box bans, calling them intrusive and bad for business.
“It’s more of hiding it until another time and place,” TPPF policy analyst Greg Glod told the Observer. “If an employer gets set on not hiring someone for a certain offense, they’re not going to do it regardless if it’s the beginning or the end.”
Casar said he wants Austinites to be judged not on their pasts, but “about who they are today and who they will be in the future.”
That’s what Jacqueline Conn wants, too.
Telling the story of her now fourteen-year-old crime still doesn’t come particularly easy to Conn. Talking over drinks at a downtown Austin coffee shop, the petite 33-year-old brunette stammers a little, sometimes taking long pauses, as she remembers that holiday weekend in 2001.
Conn volunteers for an array of criminal justice organizations and has earned two degrees since her release from prison almost a decade ago. She has good work experience from her time at Carnegie Mellon. But because of her criminal record, she can’t get a job.
“People need to have a chance,” she says. “If you run someone’s background check and you find, for example, that they did something when they were a teenager and you’re completely comfortable with them today, then that’s a decision you can make. If you find that they did something a year ago and you’re still not comfortable with it, then that’s a decision you can make.”
Conn’s seen first-hand the power of forgiveness and redemption in the years since she turned her car on Rose Stahl. It hasn’t been easy, but today the two call each other friends.The incident left Stahl with two broken hips, her pelvis broken in multiple places and her leg nearly severed at the knee. For months, struggling without health insurance, Stahl would make a bus trip — first while using a wheelchair, then with a cane — to the hospital every day to have her wounds cleaned. By the time Stahl turned 30, her doctors warned, she would need a hip replacement.
Stahl wanted Conn to pay for what she’d done. By the time Conn went to trial almost two years after the assault, Stahl had gotten a tattoo on her arm that read — misspelling Jacque’s name — “Jackie sucks.” Her lawyer used the tattoo in the courtroom to illustrate the violence of Conn’s anger. Pointing to the tattoo on Rose’s arm, he said, “This is what Rose does when she’s mad. And this” — making an example of Stahl’s injuries — “is what Conn does when she’s mad.”
In 2012, after getting her “Jackie sucks” tattoo covered, Stahl looked Conn up on social media. She was impressed with the way Conn had turned her life around and “started immediately working in service in whatever community she was living in,” Stahl told the Observer.
After all of the hard feelings over the years — the resentment, the anger, the pain — it was as if Conn was finally a human being. The two women arranged for Conn to fly out to Los Angeles, where they spent hours sitting and talking in a park near Stahl’s home.
“I got to understand that she felt like a monster,” Stahl said. “It was an amazing experience to say that ‘I forgive you; I think you’re worth it.’ Today, it really is this thing that brings a smile to my face.”
If Stahl can forgive Conn for what she did, can society do the same? Must everyone with a criminal record struggle, in perpetuity, to find work, schooling and housing? Research has shown that gainful employment significantly reduces recidivism. And yet, some 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed one year after their release.
Conn says she can’t help but wonder how life would have been had she never became a violent offender. She tosses around the idea of having a reset button in life. And she wants to help others who are in the same situation, especially women and people of color. On occasion, she’ll have a dream that she’s the one getting hit by a car, as if that’s what her conscience tells her she deserves.
What exactly has changed since she was 19? It’s a difficult question, she admits, because society expects a kind of “I’m good now” card, which is hard to come by. “I could ask you the same thing,” Conn says, taking a long sip of her coffee. “Are you different from the 19-year-old you were?”
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