Ex-convicts in District flock to apply for census jobs

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; B01

The word had spread, in churches and parole offices and halfway houses. The federal government is hiring for the 2010 Census, and tests for applicants were being given in a District neighborhood where unemployment is rampant.

Hundreds of men and women began lining up on the sidewalks outside Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington two hours before the doors opened one day last week. Most have criminal records involving drugs, stolen cars, burglary and the like. But they'd been told that the census would consider hiring them anyway, if not as census takers then as clerks.

Most of those bundled against the chill of a January morning were in their 40s and 50s. They said they just want to find work and get on with their lives. Some have been out of prison and job-hunting for years, some for months. All are familiar with the change in an interviewer's eyes when they acknowledge that they have a record, and they leave knowing a follow-up call will never come.

"Imagine being 51 years old, with no marketable skills, an ex-felon and you're black, and trying to get a job," John Murphy said as he waited to take a census test. A barber before his 1999 burglary conviction, Murphy has secured only menial jobs since getting out of prison in 2006.

"I want to work," he said. "I don't want to commit any more crimes."

Job fairs to find census workers have attracted hundreds of ex-convicts in recent weeks, so many that the organizer wants to find a bigger site, such as the D.C. Armory.

Few with felony convictions are likely to get hired for the temporary jobs, which pay $20 an hour in the District. The Census Bureau has a list of crimes that would automatically disqualify a candidate. Job candidates convicted of less-severe transgressions, mostly misdemeanors, might get a second look from the bureau. Fernando Armstrong, director of the regional census office that includes the District and Maryland, said the agency might not be hiring by the time background checks on applicants with criminal histories are completed.

'I go in with hope'

Despite daunting odds, the applicants grasp at any straw of hope. The jobless rate in the District is at a high of 12 percent, according to numbers released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the city's 16,000 ex-offenders being supervised by the courts, 50 percent cannot find work.

"I fill out a lot of applications," said Herbert Wood, 41, who spent eight years behind bars for running a chop shop. "I go to all the job sites. When I tell them I've got a record, I can see the change in their facial expressions. I go in with hope, and I lose it."

The job fairs are being organized by two people with records. Roach Brown, a laid-off film producer, was sentenced to life for murder, but his sentence was commuted by President Gerald R. Ford. The Rev. Yvonne Cooper is a former administrative law judge who was convicted of seven counts of taking bribes in 1995. Both have been active in helping former offenders reintegrate into society.

Brown said the 730 people who have taken the census test could be particularly effective working in hard-to-count neighborhoods where residents tend to be poor, minorities or immigrants. The Census Bureau tries to hire census takers in neighborhoods where they live, thinking people will be more likely to talk to someone they know.

"We have the opportunity to count thousands of people who have never been counted before," he said. Pointing to the milling applicants with a sweep of his hand, Brown added: "These people don't want to go back to jail. They don't want to hurt nobody. They want to take care of their families."

Although the Census Bureau has in the past hired people with criminal histories, critics say that could jeopardize the accuracy of the census. People who didn't mail in their forms might refuse to invite census takers into their homes and answer their questions. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced a bill that would ban felons from being census takers.

"I don't want a convicted felon going to knock on Grandma's door," Chaffetz said. "With unemployment as high as it is, there are plenty of people who don't have criminal backgrounds who we can better trust to gather this personal, sensitive information."

This year, for the first time, the census will run FBI fingerprint checks on all temporary hires. In October, the Government Accountability Office reported that as many as 200 convicted criminals might have inadvertently been hired because their fingerprints could not be read. The Census Bureau has stepped up its training of employees who gather fingerprints and said it does not expect another lapse.

Robert M. Groves, director of the Census Bureau, said people with felony convictions for serious crimes -- murder, sex offenses, grand theft and child molestation -- are automatically ineligible to work for the census.

People convicted of less-heinous crimes, mostly misdemeanors, could be hired if they can demonstrate that they don't pose a risk to the public, he said. Any conviction within the past 10 or 15 years would necessitate a special review.

"There is a large set of minor crimes that, if they occurred earlier in your life, would keep you still in contention," Groves said.

'A fresh start'

Those who work with paroled criminals say that fingerprinting and background checks are sufficient to screen out dangerous criminals and that such jobs as the census ones are crucial in helping ex-offenders lead productive lives.

"All the research shows jobs equals a lack of recidivism," said Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, whose parole officers have been told to suggest census jobs to parolees who might be eligible.

"Encountering them as census takers is part of day-to-day living," he said. "We interact with former offenders every day of our lives. We simply don't know it. If you go to the ballpark and talk to ticket takers, get your clothes dry-cleaned or eat a meal out, you're encountering them. I know former offenders who are now accountants and insurance salesmen."

Several of the census applicants spoke of how hard it is to get a new start, of being determined to stay away from criminal activity, the frustration created after dozens of unsuccessful job interviews and the humiliation of accepting help from relatives and girlfriends. And how a census job could be a steppingstone back into the mainstream.

"I need to find a job anyway I can," said Marlon Bassil, 33, who was released in November after serving four years for cocaine possession and lives in a halfway house. "I want this job so I can get a fresh start and start building references. I don't have any because I just got out."

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