Oregon Moves On Criminal Justice Reform

Nov 4, 2015

The United States has five percent of the world's population, but twenty-five percent of its prison inmates.  The state of Oregon mirrors the national numbers.  This mass incarceration – largely a result of the decades-old War on Drugs – has had a huge cost in dollars and ruined lives. Now, a bipartisan reform movement is picking up steam and Oregon is playing a part. 

You might find Trish Coldeen here on the U-of-O campus studying social work...or pumping gas and cashiering at a local Jacksons Food Store.  Trish got that job seven years ago after being rejected for jobs time and again because she had checked a box on the application forms asking if she had a criminal record:

"Jacksons did have that on the application, but the manager had enough forethought to let me get in and speak with her, cause their policy was, as long as you didn't lie about it, that they would ask you about your background and you could explain yourself."

Coldeen served three stints in prison for cooking meth and selling heroin. She's now a part time drug counselor and is active in the national movement to ban the box. She helped get the state law enacted that, starting on January 1st, no longer allows Oregon businesses to ask about a criminal record on an application form:

"We get this idea that people can't change.  I'm here to tell you that they can. Soon as we hear 'Oh a felon or an ex-convict', we have this idea in our mind of what that looks like and immediately we're not even gonna get that person in the door."

The big idea behind Ban the Box is to let an otherwise qualified applicant get to the interview stage.  As Representative Rob Nosse told his colleagues, it is a way to tell employers what the crime was, when it happened, and that the applicant may be a different person now than they were then:

"I don't want to live in a state where there is permanent punishment for mistakes."

But some legislators opposed the idea because it goes a step further. Employers in Oregon will not be able to check on and consider criminal records between the time the application is submitted and the interview, if there is one.  For example, they can't go  online and do a background check, but will have to wait and ask the job candidate face to face if they have a record.  Senator Alan Olsen:

"It puts fear into the heart of employers. Here's a prospective employee that I'm gonna have to interview to find out that he's a pedophile or a murderer."

Even advocates for Ban the Box see it as a first step.  To go further, visit the bakery at Dave's Killer Bread in Milwaukie, where pumps suck two-thousand pounds of ingredients into mixing bowls, and baked loaves go up an elevator to rotating cooling towers.  Despite all the machinery, it is a labor intensive place and a third of the 300 employees are ex-convicts, including plant manager Ronnie Elrod:

"We're just so happy to have a job that typically we've got an attitude of gratitude rather than a sense of entitlement. And we also know that opportunities are going to be hard to come by for us so we have to take those opportunities that come along and we really have to make good on them."

"They will walk through walls if necessary to help the organization be as successful as it can be."

CEO John Tucker is so caught up in the movement that he recently put the company's employment statistics on every package of bread, which also include a picture of Dave Dahl. He created Dave's Killer Bread in 2005. Dahl had served 15 years for drug-related crimes and it's largely because of him that the company employs so many ex-convicts:

"It was based on the epiphany that I had in prison which was that I could turn my own life around and eventually the feeling was that we could help others to do the same thing if they were willing to do most of the work themselves."

In Oregon, more than half of those released from prison are re-arrested within three years.  Employment is the most effective step against re-offending. Dave's Killer Bread does not track recidivism amongst its employees, but it did have a notable case two years ago. Dahl himself rammed a police vehicle and injured deputies.   Sitting in his back yard in Milwaukie, Dahl is reflective about it:

"The lesson to be learned is to remember no matter how successful you are, where you came from."

Meanwhile the company has started a foundation to reach out to other employers and John Tucker has become an evangelist for the employment of ex-cons:

"If they cannot secure a living wage, they essentially have no hope, so what is the probability that they will end up back in the criminal justice system?  I would submit to you extremely high."

This year the company was sold and Dave Dahl is no longer involved.  But his story, and the story of the Oregon ex-cons who do the baking, have helped it become the biggest selling organic bread in America.

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