RALEIGH — More than 20 years ago, a Warren County Superior Court judge sentenced Wonis Davis to 10 years in prison for second-degree murder. Since his release in 1999, Davis has bagged groceries, cooked, supervised a restaurant kitchen, worked as a church custodian and had two of his fingers sliced off while working in construction.
But his past haunts him every time he fills out an application and has to check the box next to the question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
Advocates for fair hiring think it's a question Davis and others like him should not have to answer. They want to "Ban the Box."
Gaining momentum across the nation, the movement had seen new laws removing the felony question in Minnesota, New Mexico, Hawaii and New York. About 21 cities, including San Francisco, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago and Austin, Texas, have already banned the box.
Local advocates want Raleigh and Wake County to take the first step to remove the question on applications for public-sector jobs.
About 150 people gathered in Durham last week to push for city and county ordinances to ban the felony question. A Ban the Box rally is scheduled Dec. 13 at Durham City Hall.
More than 1.6 million people in North Carolina have criminal records.
The Community Success Initiative, the Raleigh Second Chance Alliance, Congregations for Social Justice, and the N.C. Justice Center all say removing that question in this state is a critical step toward former offenders finding jobs and the economic security that may keep them from returning to prison.
The Community Success Initiative provides support for people coming out of prison and jail. Its founding director, Dennis Gaddy, said 22,000 to 26,000 people come out of North Carolina's prisons each year.
As of August, more than 6,700 people were under the supervision of the state Department of Correction on probation or parole in Wake County alone. In Durham County, nearly 4,000 people are on probation or parole, according to Durham Second Chance Alliance members. Thousands more have criminal convictions.
The issue is "important for a couple of reasons," said Ajamu Dillahunt, an outreach coordinator with the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh. "Right now the economic crisis we're in makes it difficult for people to find employment. We need to remove the barriers that exist so that people can find jobs."
Employers who invest in people with criminal histories are ultimately investing in the safety of the greater community by helping them secure legitimate employment, he said.
Raleigh manager's take
Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen said he was sure the City Council would be happy to discuss the Ban the Box proposal's merits and listen to why it would be good for Raleigh. But he has concerns about removing the felony question from city applications.
"Particularly for public-sector jobs, we need to bevery aware," Allen said. "The fact of the matter is that employees in the public realm get very close to people's homes, children. And then you have police, fire and other aspects of public safety; energy, water, financial information ... it's important that we have applicants who are truthful and fully disclose whatever is in their background."
Allen said if someone has been convicted of a crime but has managed to turn his or her life around then it's appropriate for that job candidate to submit letters of recommendation and other statements of support to counter the criminal record.
"There's no prohibition against that," he said.
The initial application
But those pushing for the change in Raleigh are only proposing that the question be removed from the initial application so that employers won't be immediately dissuaded by a criminal record before learning more about a job candidate's experience, skills and personality. A criminal background check would still be required before the applicant is hired, but making it to the interview phase would give the applicant a chance to explain the nature of the crime, how long ago it occurred, incarceration and rehabilitation efforts.
Davis, 42, admits that his criminal record was 12 pages long when he was sent to prison, but he says he hasn't been arrested since he was released from prison more than 10 years ago.
"When I see the box, the box doesn't even give you the chance to say, 'That was me then. Look at me now,'" Davis said, taking a break at Blaylock's Barbershop and Hair Salon in downtown Raleigh, where he works as a barber. "I'm always honest, but when I put the charge on a job application, they tell me, 'We don't hire violent offenders here.'"
A difficult journey
Davis has come a long way.
"I got a little breathing room," he said. "It's kind of like swimming - take a stroke and breathe."
He was sentenced to life plus 10 years in prison along with several other people for the second-degree murder conviction. But he said the life sentence was dropped after investigators found that he had little to do with the killing.
"They got me for association," he said.
When he got out of prison, he went to live with his sister in Warrenton. She bought him $150 worth of clothes and let him stay at her house for two months, before she told him to leave because he hadn't found a job.
"I stayed homeless for about three months," he said.
Then temptation and the lure of fast money through crime came calling.
"A guy called me and said he heard about my situation. He offered me a 'care package.' The package was $10,000 in cash and a half-kilo of cocaine."
Small jobs, hard work
Instead, Davis got a job at a Burger King through a friend who knew the manager.
That's how he has beat the box for the past 10 years - by finding work through friends willing to give him a chance.
He worked minimum-wage jobs until he scored a job at a Golden Corral in Warrenton. Davis spent a year working up the ladder to become a kitchen manager in training. Then a new store manager checked his application and accused him of lying about his criminal history.
"I did a telephone interview back then," Davis said. "They accepted it. The new manager came along and said I checked 'No' in the box."
He was fired. Still, there was a silver lining. Davis had acquired enough cooking skills to start his own catering business. Love Life Catering struggled, but Davis figured he was on his way to becoming an independent business owner.
"I didn't have to worry about the box because I can't fire myself," he said.
While he operated his business part time, Davis worked for a Durham construction company and severed two fingers off his left hand in 2006.
In 2008, he attended barber school in Raleigh and went to work at the downtown barbershop where he has built a customer base.
Thursday, he catered a meeting in which former inmates like himself shared their stories and their difficulties trying to find work.
It was an opportunity for them to organize and strategize - to Ban the Box.
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.
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