After spending 15 years incarcerated for crimes committed as a 15-year-old, Levi Daniels was released in April 2014. Then came the hard part—he had to figure out how to start an adult life from scratch.
"I had no work history when I came out of prison, no credit history. I have five felony convictions, and for somebody to take a chance on me like that is a pretty big deal," Daniels says.
Daniels explains that his crimes, which include burglary, were the result of a "misguided youth." Though he understands why potential employers turned him down, he wanted the chance to prove himself. A few months after getting out of prison, Daniels interviewed at Dave Taylor Roofing where he was up front with owner Bob Duncan about his past. Duncan says he's willing to hire people with checkered histories, as long as they demonstrate a dedication to change.
"I said, 'Okay, are you ready to get your life together now?'" Duncan recalls of the interview with Daniels. "And he turned out to be one of the best employees I have. He's extremely trustworthy, he's very honest, and he's just a hard worker, and everything he does he goes at it wholeheartedly, and he's a great model employee."
Local advocates are hoping that more stories like Daniels' will be shared at an upcoming community discussion hosted by Missoula Partners for Reintegration, a coalition that seeks to help former inmates find housing and employment. Daniels has already given a presentation at a previous meeting that focused on housing issues.
Nationwide, 60-75 percent of former inmates don't find employment within their first year of being released. President Barack Obama—who is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison—announced on Nov. 2 that he'd be issuing an executive order asking federal employers to remove the felony check-box from job applications. Studies have shown that if a potential employer learns of an applicant's felony status later in the hiring process, they're more likely to hire that person than if they knew it right away.
Liz Rantz has worked for the Montana Department of Corrections and the Missoula County Detention Facility as a medical director for a combined 20 years and is helping organize the community discussion series for Missoula Partners for Reintegration.
"Aside from all the injustices of the justice system, which is a huge topic in itself, most offenders who are put away for any length of time at all get out eventually," Rantz says. "And as a society we don't welcome them back very well."
Some major employers, including Target and Home Depot, have already chosen to remove the felony box from job applications. Rantz is hoping to eventually push Missoula City Council to consider such a measure for municipal employees.
Rantz says removing the felony box is just one of the first steps to helping former inmates reintegrate into society. Other barriers include finding housing, since many property management companies won't rent to someone with a felony conviction. Rantz believes it's also important for former inmates to get education and training to become qualified for better paying positions than just minimum-wage part-time work.
"It's not that we don't want people to know that a person's a felon. Ideally an [interviewer] becomes comfortable enough saying, 'Now, there's three years here that aren't accounted for, what happened?'" she says. "But it's a question of being discriminated against just when they're walking in the door."
The community discussion on hiring, "Why It Can Be Good to Hire Someone on Probation or Parole," takes place Thu., Nov. 12, from noon to 1 p.m. at Missoula City Council chambers.