When Shawn Smith left prison after serving almost nine years, he was determined to start fresh.
He searched for job openings in the Las Vegas Valley as part of his effort to turn his life around. However, each application presented him with a dreaded question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
“Not only that, but there was a small space under that (where) I had to try to explain myself,” said Smith, who was convicted for drug possession and intent to sell. “It made me feel I was never going to get a job and get back to where I need to be.”
Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, said that for people leaving prison, that question can be an obstacle in the way to finding meaningful employment.
“We are looking to get rid of that question on the front end,” Thompson said, he said of his and others’ efforts to “ban the box.”
Doing so wouldn’t prevent an employer from running a background check or asking about felony convictions later in the application process.
Instead, it’s aimed at giving the employer a chance to meet the applicant, who could explain his or her situation instead of being dismissed outright.
“It gives the employer a chance to say, ‘I like them. They have strong work ethic and I need them for my company,’” Thompson said.
More than 100 cities and counties in various states have eliminated the felony-conviction question from applications as part of the “ban the box” movement.
Thompson said he helped craft a “ban the box” bill in the 2015 legislative session. It didn’t move forward; he that added he and other groups around the state are crafting a bill for the upcoming session, which begins Feb. 6.
In October, the city of North Las Vegas announced it would remove the question from employment applications.
“That makes it the first in our state to do so,” Thompson said.
There exemptions, such as for the school district to ensure people with child sexual assault convictions aren’t working with children, he said.
After countless applications and continuing to explain his mistakes, Smith eventually landed a job. He now also works to help other ex-offenders with their job searches.
“I talk with them about how to best answer that question,” he said.
Smith added that not finding employment can lead ex-offenders back to old habits.
“If they can’t earn their keep at a job, they will return to the streets,” he said.
In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, Thompson has been working with other ex-offenders to speak about how banning the box could affect those trying to turn their lives around.
“You’d be surprised at how many people this affects,” he said. “We want them to be able to share their stories about second chances.”
Thompson said it’s all about creating better opportunities.
“This creates a fair chance for them to have a second chance,” he added. “People made mistakes earlier in life and served their time.”
To reach Henderson View reporter Michael Lyle, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.