Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Past crimes jeopardize employment prospects

People with criminal backgrounds face daunting obstacles following their sentences. Many find themselves displaced; Washington state law requires felons on parole to serve it in the county of their first offense, which may be far from home. Some find themselves alienated from families and friends. But one problem that almost anyone with prior convictions faces is employment. Past convictions often become serious barriers to finding employment, sometimes disqualifying applicants outright from seeking positions.

Washington law allows private employers to eliminate felons wholesale from their applicant pools.  This is often achieved through a check box on job applications asking about prior felony convictions.  Several states have passed laws restricting the use of such check boxes on applications, but Washington state law does not restrict private employers’ use of the box.

Hiring processes at Whitman vary widely in this regard. Applications for staff positions include a section asking that applicants list any convictions for felonies or non-trivial misdemeanors. Human Resources then verifies that information with a criminal background check. These measures, according to Director of Human Resources Dennis Hopwood, exist in large part to ensure the safety of everyone on campus.

“What we’re most concerned about are crimes of violence against persons or property. We’re concerned about crimes of intimidation and threat: racial harassment, things of that nature,” said Hopwood.  “Our primary objective here is to ensure safety of students and safety of our staff and faculty.”

Bon Appétit, though a separate entity from the college, has a similar hiring policy. Its applications, like Whitman’s, ask about prior convictions but add that convictions do not disqualify applicants. Roger Edens, general manager of Bon Appétit at Whitman, offered an overview of the company’s policy.

“After successful interviews and reference checks, the candidate would be offered the job contingent upon passing a background check,” said Edens in an e-mail. “Results of background checks are seen only by the company’s human resources professionals, who make the determination on various factors including the need for a safe campus environment.”

Faculty hiring is not subject to any policy in particular regarding criminal history. Applicants to faculty positions are typically not even subjected to criminal background checks. Interim Provost and Dean of Faculty Patrick Spencer says that he has yet to encounter any scenario that would necessitate such a policy and has not heard of any cases before his installation as interim provost and dean of faculty this summer.

“We do an educational background check to make sure that their degree is what they say it is, but we don’t check criminal history or things like that,” said Spencer.

Criminal history does not preclude chances of employment in any on-campus position but casts them into serious doubt, particularly because of safety concerns.

“There’s no blanket rejection of people just because they have a criminal background,” said Hopwood. “We look at each case for its own merits and we’re careful about how we arrive at that decision. But to be honest … I’ve got to be able to look that parent in the eye.”

The STAR (Successful Transition and Re-Entry) project, an organization founded in Walla Walla to help formerly incarcerated people transition back into everyday life, connects formerly incarcerated persons with various resources available to them. The program is unique in that it caters exclusively to felons, a fact that amused junior Marlee Raible during her internship at STAR this summer.

“When [clients] would call and make an appointment, the first thing I would ask them was ‘Do you have a felony?’ and in order for us to serve them, you have to say yes,” she said. “I just always thought that that was ironic and kind of great.”

While Whitman has partnered with STAR in other ways, including internships and volunteer opportunities, this partnership has never extended to STAR’s clients. STAR executive director Glenna Awbrey said she would welcome such an arrangement, but as of yet neither the college nor the STAR project has proposed one.

“I think it would be great,” said Awbrey. “We’ve developed a pretty good relationship with Whitman in some ways. I would absolutely love for that to be an option, for some of our folks to be given opportunities for employment.”

Even though Whitman policy does not exclude applicants on the basis of past convictions, applying can still pose a daunting prospect. To Hopwood’s knowledge, in the three years of his tenure, Human Resources has never hired anyone with a prior conviction. Neither Awbrey nor Raible has ever heard of a STAR client hired at Whitman. Awbrey notes that even without policies against hiring felons, employers run the risk of discouraging possible applicants simply by word of mouth.

“Usually … the word gets out on who will or won’t hire felons, and people just don’t apply after that,” she said. “Why would you?”

Despite the occasionally restrictive situation Whitman faces in its hiring processes, Hopwood supports efforts by ex-felons to re-enter the workforce.

“I’m going to be positive and choose to believe that people who have gone through the penal system and have put their lives back together again have a right to create a life for themselves,” said Hopwood. “And so I think we have to look at that and see if there’s a way to make it work.”

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