St. Pete says goodbye to the box

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin announced Tuesday their “City of Opportunity” initiative to eliminate the box on applications that requires job seekers to reveal prior criminal convictions.

“We are banning the box,” Kriseman said in a formal announcement from the steps of City Hall, which garnered much applause from the small crowd gathered outside. “To those interested in working for the city, that little check box on the city’s application that requires an applicant to disclose whether they’ve been convicted of a crime will be going away on January 1.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman on The Box, St. PetersburgKriseman noted that St. Pete is not the first to ban the box, as nearly 70 cities and counties nationwide, including Tampa, have removed this barrier to employment. Some cities and states have gone as far as extending this practice to contractors and private employers, Kriseman said.

“While we are not taking that step today, I am hoping that our organization, the City of St. Petersburg, will set an example for other employers in our community,” he said.

Kriseman explained that this initiative isn’t just about giving people with records a fair chance, but is good for the city’s economy and for public safety.

“It gets us closer to our vision of truly being a city of opportunity,” the mayor affirmed, and added that when individuals with criminal histories are engaged in their community and employed, they are less likely to re-offend and the community is ultimately safer.

Michael Jalazo, executive director of the Pinellas County Ex-Offender Coalition (PERC), was on hand and announced that PERC demonstrated its own City of Opportunity initiative with its 18th annual Showcase of Services, held the day before at the St. Pete campus of Pinellas Technical College.

“With the City of St. Petersburg and 56 other organizations, we provided service or guidance to over 500 families of ex-offenders or ex-offenders themselves, in terms of what their different needs are,” Jalazo said. “Our goal and mission for PERC is to help offenders become and remain successful ex-offenders in the community.”

Jalazo also said that a PERC project called the Dr. David T. Welch Center for Progress and Community Development is going to be opening on the 16th Street corridor to create more jobs and opportunities.

“And that all comes back to what Ban the Box is all about,” he said, “by removing the check box on employment applications related to one’s past or their history you create opportunity. They key to success for ex-offenders to remain ex-offenders is employment.”

He noted that ex-offenders may still be subject to disclosure, but will be given the chance to present themselves and put their job qualifications first when applying for a job, not their criminal records.

“It doesn’t guarantee employment, but it increases the chance for employment,” he said, noting that major companies like Target and Walmart have removed the box from employment screening because they realize they’re losing the opportunity for the “talent and employment of these people without even giving them a consideration on their skills.”

LaShanna Tyson, a Paralegal Studies major at Seminole State College, knows firsthand the difficulties faced by women returning to their communities after incarceration. The mother of three is an Orlando resident, a licensed Florida real estate agent and a community organizer for the Faith in Florida organization. After being released from a prison sentence, Tyson came up against many unexpected obstacles.

“My journey started right in St. Petersburg,” she told the crowd. “My re-entry back into society. I was at the work release center here on Gandy and after serving 13 years in prison, they sent me out by myself on the bus to come down here to the social security administration building. I can tell you, that was a scary thing. I didn’t know how to use the bus.”

She said that coming out of prison ex-offenders need jobs more than anything else.

“In prison we work so hard for free,” she said, “not because we wanted to but because we had to. The same jobs that we did in there for free, we come home and can’t get those jobs out here, because of a box that regulates us to second class citizenship in a state where we’ve been incarcerated.”

When Tyson left St. Pete to move home to Orlando, that’s when “reality kicked in” for her, as everywhere she went potential employers asked about her background rather than her qualifications. The box on the application prevented her from finding work or even going to college.

“They released me with no way for me to succeed out here,” she said.

Through perseverance Tyson in time became a licensed realtor but still ran into brick walls. When she sold her first house she took her commission check and tried to rent an apartment. The rental application had that dreaded box.

“I was told I can’t rent an apartment for 99 years,” she said. “I can sell all the houses that I want, but I can’t rent an apartment because of that box. I am a felon first and foremost over a realtor. That motivated me.”

She communicated with mothers who had been in prison and had said they would strive to be better mothers, to get jobs, to work hard for their kids and to have a second chance. But when she found these same women back in prison within a year, they simply told her it is harder being back in society than it is in prison.

“When someone tells you that, it’s a problem,” Tyson asserted. “Prison is a horrible place. I realized that someone had to fight for us.”

She decided to tell anyone who would listen about her plight and the plight of other ex-offenders. She found a place with Faith in Florida, an organization that is working to change Florida’s constitution so that “when we have completed our sentences, our rights are automatically restored.”

In this season of elections, she also stated that everyone should exercise their right to vote.

“Here is my message to anybody that can vote: don’t just sit back, come out and vote,” she declared. “There is a reason why they take the right to vote away from us. Make it your job, your duty, your obligation to come out and vote. I do not care who you vote for. Exercise your right.

Tyson urged even people with felony convictions to do what they can, even though they themselves cannot vote.

“I took 26 people to the primaries,” she stated. “I can’t vote, but my friends and family can!”

Kriseman also announced that minimum wage for St. Pete’s full time city employees will be raised to $12.50 per hour. Part time employees that have worked for the city for at least five years will also earn that same base wage.

“This is gas money,” Kriseman said. “It’s grocery money. It’s a few extra dollars to help make life a little easier for the people in our city of St. Petersburg family.”

Tomalin stated that the elimination of the box and the minimum pay raise are critically important initiatives that share one common thread: opportunity.

“We’re working hard every day to be a more innovative, creative and competitive community,” Tomalin said.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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