Ronald West, 41, was excited about the Watts Labor Community Action Committee’s Sixth Annual Job Fair held Wednesday.

West, a former inmate and a father of five, was seeking information about expunging his prison record and was hopeful that there would be a potential employer among the 50 booths set up at the fair.

The Inglewood resident had previously worked as a manager at several major department chains but had failed to mark the box inquiring as to whether he had ever committed a felony. A background check revealed that West was a former felon. “They discovered that I had a burglary conviction,” said West, who said that he lost jobs due to the omission.

The job losses were devastating for West, who said that since being fired, he had not worked for 10 years.

Like many ex-felons, West was critical of the persistent barriers many ex-felons face when they attempt to reenter the workplace.

“Imprisonment is supposed to be about rehabilitation,” he pointed out. “That means giving ex-felons a second chance to reenter society. But instead, it seems as if we’re punished forever after we pay the price.”

Kamel Valavez, 23, who had both a previous robbery and a burglary conviction, agreed. “I was a juvenile when I committed an armed robbery. Then as an adult, I got a burglary conviction.”

After serving time behind bars, Valavez was ready to start his life with a clean slate. “I went back to school and obtained certificates as a medical assistant and as a custodian,” said Valavez. “But if you have a felony, employers don’t seem to want to hire you.”

Keyon King, 26, also a former felon, said that he had been searching for work for months. “Every single day, I’ve been trying to get a job, and nobody has called me back yet,” said King. He was hoping to change his luck at the job fair.

Valavez shrugged his shoulders. “It seems that once you make a mistake, society keeps capitalizing on your mistake. If you go to jail and do your time, that should be punishment enough–your mistake should be wiped away because the reason you are placed in jail is to be rehabilitated.”

At a Reentry Employment Seminar held at the job fair, Michelle Burch, director of policy and programs at A New Way of Life, a reentry program for ex-felons, quoted some startling statistics. “Advocates and lawyers are concerned about the growing number of people in the United States who have criminal records,” said Burch, who added that California is leading the way in the incarceration boom. “There are 2.3 million people in jails in the United States and all told there are 7.5 million who are under correctional supervision.”

Burch pointed out that there will be an increase of the formerly incarcerated from prisons in the years to come. “The United States imprisons more people than any other country, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics,” she pointed out.

Burch pointed out that African Americans appear to have a high incarceration rate. “The Pew Foundation said that one in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated due to the increase of racial profiling and disproportionate sentencing laws,” said Burch. “This is going to pose a huge challenge in years to come for California in terms of reentry because we have a bigger reentry group. There are approximately 45,000 people coming home from prison each year,” she pointed out.

What was even more startling is that statistics indicated that a white person with a previous record was more likely to get a call-back for employment than a black person without a record.
Ex-felons not only face hiring discrimination, but according to Claudia Pena, a student at the UCLA law school, ex-felons also face barriers in terms of housing, education, public assistance, and voting.

The reentry boom will pose a special challenge for employers as more and more ex-felons seek work. “We are hoping that at job fairs like this, employers will feel more comfortable about hiring people than they have in the past,” said Burch.