The Georgia Justice Project is trying to help people with arrest records and convictions get jobs.
GJP Legal Director Brenda Smeeton said Georgia is one of the worst states for employment for people with a criminal past and it’s something that needs to change.
“We are trying to change the laws here in Georgia to bring them in line with other states,” she said, explaining that many states allow felony conviction records to be expunged after a certain time. “There are some states where employers can only consider convictions. But in Georgia, employers can consider arrests and convictions. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in Georgia.”
Smeeton and Georgia Legal Services Program staff attorney Nancy Devetter spoke Monday at an event hosted by the Liberty County Re-entry Coalition.
Smeeton said there are 35 states that allow conviction records to be expunged.
However, in Georgia, the only thing that can removed is an arrest with no conviction. That needs to change, Smeeton said.
“A lot of times people come to these presentations because they have a conviction,” she said. “And that is what is really holding them back. Sometimes they get very disappointed in what I have to say. I tell them about a pardon which is an option for a felony conviction in Georgia. It gives you the certificate of rehabilitation but that is not the same as removing it from your record and keeping your employers from considering it.”
Smeeton said these barriers to employment increase the risk of recidivism. She said many qualified applicants are being overlooked because of their past.
“Employers have these concerns, and there are valid concerns about hiring people with a record…but there is also great research that shows that hiring people with a felony conviction is no riskier for the employer than hiring somebody without a criminal record, particularly if a certain number of years have passed,” she said.
Smeeton said research has found former felons can make good employees with high retention and promotion rates.
“There are great studies out there that show this,” she said. “We really need to bring employers into the conversation. Over 40 percent of the population in Georgia has some kind of criminal record. An arrest and or conviction. And we have a labor shortage in many areas in Georgia.”
Devetter said she spoke to several people at the event.
“They really want to know how their record is going to affect them going forward,” Devetter said. “And that really varies depending on what their situation was.”
Devetter and Smeeton both agree the state stepped in the right direction when Governor Nathan Deal signed the “Ban the Box” Bill in 2015.
It is a hiring policy that eliminates questions about criminal history on job applications. It gives applicants a chance to explain criminal history during interviews and allows only relevant convictions to be used.
Georgia became the first state in the South to implement ban the box.
“The movement has been going on for about 20 years,” Smeeton said but noted it is limited here. “There are a lot of states that have banned the box, but in Georgia it only bans the box for state employers, not private employers.”
Smeeton said the movement has gained momentum nationally.
“There are many companies that operate nationally that have changed their practice because it is a growing movement,” she said. “It is not a cure-all but it does start to shift the conversation about how we should be considering records.”