Legislators aim to give convicted felons second chance

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Warren Rivera has sent out 30 job applications after getting out of prison. He has not gotten a single response.

Warren Rivera walked out of federal prison nearly two months ago after serving about seven years for his conviction on a charge of illegal firearm possession.

First on the 40 year old’s list: Get a job.

As a “person who has totally changed his life,” Rivera fired off 30 job applications. Not one employer has contacted him for so much as an interview.

“If you [the employer] don’t sit down and look at me in the eye, you’ll never know you had the perfect candidate,” Rivera, who is African American, told New Mexico In Depth in a recent interview.

A bill wending through the Legislature for the third time in four years would give Rivera, and people like him, a chance to clear some of the hurdles that have tripped them up as they search for jobs and new lives after prison.

If passed, Senate Bill 96 would make New Mexico the 12th state to “ban the box” for private sector employment. That means, essentially, that businesses around the state would be forbidden from forcing job seekers to indicate past convictions on an initial application.

New Mexico prohibited conviction questions on applications for government jobs in 2010; 33 states and the District of Columbia now have some version of “ban the box” laws for the public sector.

The issue has national implications. More than 70 million people in the U.S. have criminal records — with blacks and Hispanics comprising a disproportionate share.

The “ban the box” movement has gathered steam in New Mexico, although objections remain from business groups and others.

Democratic Sen. Bill B. O’Neill and Republican Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, both of Albuquerque, have pushed the proposal forward during the past four years. In 2015, the pair got a private sector ban on conviction questions for private employers through the state Senate. In 2017, both legislative chambers passed the legislation, only to see it vetoed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

They’ve offered the proposal again this year, in the form of Senate Bill 96.

The bill passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a bipartisan, 5-0 vote. It heads next to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked this week during a news conference whether she would sign the bill if it passes the Legislature, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it would be “premature” to comment.

O’Neill said SB 96 would allow ex-convicts a second chance to get back on their feet.

“It gives people a chance to change their lives. It’s not easy for folks who have been in a criminal netherworld,” O’Neill said. “A good job is absolutely essential.”

O’Neill points to his own personal experience as a guidepost for what he sees as good public policy. Before he was elected into the House of Representatives in 2008, O’Neill worked as executive director for Dismas House New Mexico, an assisted living home for convicted felons on parole (He was elected to the Senate in 2012).

O’Neill spoke to employers about Dismas residents as they applied for jobs, informing the employer that applicants had been released from prison, but stressing their desires to live a law abiding life.

“So many [employers] immediately recognized this wasn’t just another job hire, this was potentially them helping the community by helping this person change their life by hiring them. They knew everything about this person,” O’Neill said.

Others have concerns.

Terri Cole, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said business owners would face significant problems if SB 96 is passed.

Hiring a convicted felon should be determined at the private employer’s discretion, she said.

“It’s important for the business community to make their own hiring decisions with regard to someone who has a prior conviction,” Cole said.

Baldonado said the bill is not intended to pressure employers to hire a convicted felon; instead, the lawmakers are asking private employers to give convicted felons a chance to speak about their qualifications and explain their criminal history.

The bill would not prohibit businesses from inquiring later on in the hiring process about past convictions.

“The heart of it is is not to force employers to hire people who may have a felony conviction; it’s to just let them have that conversation and make that decision a little bit later down the road,” Baldonado said.

Baldonado is a real estate agent who works alongside independent contractor real estate brokers. Brokers are asked if they have a felony conviction during the application process. While that does not prohibit the applicant from obtaining their real estate license, it does put up a barrier for the applicant, he said.

SB 96, Baldonado said, could remove some of the stigma of a past conviction by allowing people to “sell themselves” in job interviews.

O’Neill said the proposal has the potential to extend beyond individuals’ employment opportunities.

“In terms of its impact on the community, it makes our community safer if people are able to get the opportunity to work in a legitimate way and not go back to the life of crime that they know,” he said. “I’ve always seen this as a public safety strategy.”

The longtime legislator also pointed to the bipartisan support the proposal has enjoyed for years, saying it already would be law were it not for the veto pen of former Gov. Martinez.

Warren Rivera told NMID that he has struggled to get his foot in the door for a job. Checking the box on applications has held him back, he said.

Court records show he had several convictions for felony domestic violence before his federal gun conviction.

Rivera said before serving time in federal prison, he previously worked for Walmart with a prior felony on his record. He recently applied for a position at the same location and was turned down.

He acknowledges his past — and the ways in which it might ultimately allow non-felons to leapfrog him in the hiring process for some jobs.

“They don’t have what I have,” he said. “That’s not to say I don’t deserve work.”