Explaining Your Criminal Record
Ideally, there would be no stereotyping, stigmas, or biases surrounding criminal records, and you wouldn’t have to explain your past for anybody. However, that isn’t always the case, and you may find yourself having to explain a past felony conviction to anyone from a prospective employer, an apartment complex, to your family and friends, as well as in situations with child custody, immigration, and driving privileges, depending on what type of crime is on your record. With an estimated one in three Americans holding a criminal record, your problem may be more common that you’d think. When it comes to these situations, there are certain things you can do in order to reshape the conversation into one that demonstrates what a valuable asset you are in any situation. A felony conviction is not the end of the road, just a few bumps, and you can still enjoy your rights and freedoms.
In the Employment Field
This is one of the biggest areas that felons struggle in after getting out of prison, as most jobs will conduct background checks before making hires. This makes it difficult to hide the fact that you have a prior conviction, no matter how long ago it was and how much you’ve changed since then. If there is not a background check and you decide to lie, should your employer find out, you may be fired. There seems to be no win here. However, there are ways that you can address the issue in a way that explains how you are not your conviction and are in fact very qualified for the position, making this a minor set-back versus a defeat.
While there technically is no federal law prohibiting employers from asking about criminal convictions in the hiring process, there may be cases when the question isn’t asked, and you really have no obligation to inform them of your record. In fact, many states are making strives to implement something called the Ban the Box movement, which encourages employers to not include the question requiring you to check a box if you have a criminal record. This is obviously an ideal situation, but won’t happen all of the time. If you are asked, there’s some important things to keep in mind:
Before the Interview
If it’s a job application, write “will discuss in person,” if possible.
This will allow you to not lie on the application, but also indicate that there is more to the story that you would like to have the chance to explain. You may also want to include a very brief description of how it was a lesser crime, you’ve turned your life around, how long ago it was, and other important information. If there is a gap in your employment history from your time incarcerated that may look suspicious, feel free to include any jobs you held in jail. Other ways to avoid bringing up the subject can include stating that you left your last job because you relocated or there was an end to your contract. While this doesn’t guarantee that the person reading your application is still going to consider you, it might make them reconsider their quickness to judge.
Know beforehand what’s on your record.
While it sounds like a record may be a permanent thing, you actually never know when things may change. For one, some states allow convictions to not appear on your record after a certain amount of time – usually seven years, and you may not have to worry about this process at all. Alternatively, you may find yourself with bad news of incorrect information or something else that may surprise you that you want to get taken care of as soon as possible. Additionally, you want to be fully informed on what you were charged with and prepared to answer any questions they may have about the charge.
At the Interview
Remain calm and don’t get defensive.
There’s obviously a lot of pressure involved in this situation, and it’s unfortunate that you have to feel like you must defend yourself in the first place. However, your professional attitude will further show how you are more than ready to take on a new position.
Describe what you’ve learned over the years.
This doesn’t just have to be how you’ve come to be the reformed person you are. If you worked while in prison, let them know what roles you performed, how you showed leadership among your coworkers, and any applicable skills you have. Did you complete a degree or some other certification while there? Or even pick up a creative hobby or something that you’re proud of? All of these are ways to show that you’ve learned from what happened, and you made the best out of the situation, gleaning experience in the process.
Don’t get too deep into it.
You’re not here to stand trial, and you don’t have to describe every detail of the case. Being brief is best, allowing it to seem as a past mistake that doesn’t need to be of concern. Describing any drama that may have caused it or other unnecessary information just spends too much time dwelling on what isn’t important – you should be focused on showing what professional skills and assets you bring to the table.
Inform your employer on the benefits of hiring someone with a criminal record – if they don’t already know.
That’s right. Employers get perks from hiring you, besides just the value of having you on the team. For one, they qualify for the Federal Bonding Program, meaning they receive free insurance for the first six months of your employment that covers them in any case of any fraudulent or dishonest acts, giving them a $5,000 limit and no deductible. There isn’t even any official paperwork or any fuss involved – they’re just covered.
Additionally, there is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit on a federal level, allowing them to take a tax break by hiring you. Once you work 120 hours in a year they can claim a 25 percent tax credit for your wages, and 40 percent if you work 400 hours and more. This one does take some forms, but this can be a great incentive to employ you. Look into your state tax law as well, because some states also offer these tax credits, and you may find even more benefits to your hiring.
Show that you’re just as good as those who don’t have a criminal record.
Recently, executives have reported to the Society of Human Resource Management that 82 percent of the ex-felons they have hired were at least as successful in the position as those who didn’t have a record. Your record doesn’t mean anything about your character, job performance, knowledge, and expert skills – as long as you don’t let it. Be confident in your value, and don’t let that part overtake the interview. Another way you can do this is by obtaining both character references and professional references that can testify to your reliability, honesty, and professional ability. If necessary, try to steer the conversation back to what you can contribute, versus your past.
After the Interview
Don’t get discouraged.
Even if you don’t think it went well, or are particularly worried about how your record may affect you getting the job, keep in mind that only 14 percent of human resource managers don’t consider hiring ex-offenders. Even if this company chose not to hire you, know that there is someone out there that would love to have you on their team – it’s just a matter of finding them.
Follow up respectfully.
While some companies now explicitly ask you not to do this, there are some cases when following up may be appropriate, as it shows you’re really interested in the position. Consider sending a handwritten note (or prepare one beforehand and leave it with reception) thanking them for their time and consideration.
Consider a trade that doesn’t have background checks.
Freelance and contract work are growing quickly right now, and that’s the perfect opportunity to put your skills to work and profit off of it, all while not having to worry about reporting your criminal record to anyone. You can also look into companies that don’t require a background check, the list of which seems to be growing every day.
When Finding Housing
When Applying for Housing
The dreaded criminal background check may cause you problems here as well, unfortunately. Particularly when renting from an apartment complex, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to run your background, and while it definitely seems like discrimination, they are allowed to deny your application based on anything they may find. However, there a few things you can try to make the process a little easier, and still find a great place to call home.
If they’re going to run a background check, consider informing them of what they may find, especially because this will save you the hassle of application fees. Using similar techniques to those in the employment section, testify to how your character has changed, how you will afford the rent, and briefly give your case about your conviction. This is another time that references are a great resource, as they can be contacted if they want to confirm anything about you and how you would be as a resident. Again, this isn’t guaranteed to work, but it could make a major difference in your application process.
Look for private property owners.
While a lot of the larger apartment complexes often have rules from higher ups that may trump any feelings they have about providing you with housing, private owners may be more convincible or flexible here. Additionally, they may be less likely to perform a background check on you first, as they aren’t as likely to have the resources these multi-property owners have. You may even be able to relate better with them on a personal level, as they may be looking for a tenant a lot like you.
If you’re really concerned about being denied and don’t want to waste any application fees or time driving out and meeting people, just call the apartment complexes you’re looking at and inquire about their policy regarding accepting tenants with your type of criminal background. You don’t have to give them any information about yourself; just try and get an idea of whether you think you have a good chance, or if they won’t even run a check. This can help you quickly weed out which ones are worth visiting and paying application fees for.
Look into Section 8.
Section 8 provides rent assistance to low-income families who are not able to afford housing otherwise. While this also takes an application process, one in which your criminal background will be checked, they may still consider you if you’re a felon and can demonstrate need and that you’re reformed. However, they will consider lots of factors, including others that will be living with you, the type of felony you have, how long it’s been, whether you completed any rehabilitation programs, and more. Ex-offenders that aren’t eligible for this assistance are those convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or those required to a lifetime on the sex offender registration.
Look into a halfway house.
If you’re about to leave prison, you can speak to your parole officer about being transferred into halfway housing. This is a way to help you get back on your feet until you are able to afford to apply for your own housing. They will also provide you with resources that will help you in the employment field and other reintroductions to society.
Look for charitable help.
There is any number of organizations out there with programs to help ex-offenders get back and stay on their feet. Consider contacting one and them and see if they’re able to help you with anything. Also, this may be a time to turn to family and friends for a temporary place to stay – just be sure not to take advantage.
Getting Back Your Driver’s License
In cases of some felony convictions, usually those involving driving and DUIs, you may have your license suspended or revoked. This is the case in most states, and some states will also revoke for not paying child support or possessing alcohol as a minor. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever get it back.
Apply for a restricted license.
You may be able to receive a restricted license during this time, especially if you can prove that you really need to drive to work, community service, school, or some other necessary reason. It will most likely confine your driving to certain hours of the day, however. In the case of drug and alcohol offenses, you may also apply to have an ignition interlock device (IID) put in your car that requires you to blow into it to test your BAC before you can drive your vehicle. These compromises can save you the hassle of being completely without a license.
Review conditions to reinstate.
There are a few things you can do in addition to any jail time or fines you were required to serve in order to get your license back. After waiting the required amount of time to apply, you may try and have it reinstated, but there’s some things you can do to help your chances. Going through some kind of drug and alcohol rehabilitation program or treatment in some way can show that you’re making better choices and are ready to take this responsibility back. You will also want to ensure you have and can afford at least the minimum insurance requirements for your state. Be sure to also have all of your child support paid up-to-date. Be prepared for there to be a reinstatement fee as well, sometimes $100 and above.
Don’t ever drive with a suspended or revoked license.
There are very few emergencies that can justify this, as if you get caught, you will run a much higher risk of not having your license reinstated. It’s important to follow all rules with restricted licenses as well, as these will often result in a loss of that privilege.
While a felony conviction may place burdens on your life even after you’ve served your justice, there are ways to work with the issues and work your way back into being a successful and law abiding citizen that proves to be a valuable asset to the community, your workplace, communities, and all other aspects of your life. When applying for work and housing, there can be quite a bit of discrimination, unfortunately. However, you can fight back on this with presenting the facts of your character and worth. Honesty is usually the best way to go, but you also shouldn’t feel obligated to inform everyone of your past, as the past is just that. Along with making efforts to improve your life, remaining positive is key, even when you feel like you’ve hit a dead end. There is almost always another rock to overturn that may provide you with the perfect opportunity to prosper as you restart your life.