Published by the Danville Register and Bee
By Marty Jackson
I am a returning citizen, a Danville native with felony convictions on my criminal record. When I was younger, I made mistakes and I paid my debt to society. When I came out of prison, I needed to find a job and I needed to make sure that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again; I was determined not to go back.
I was fortunate to find God and a job, and now I am on my way to getting all my rights back, including my right to vote. Not everyone that comes out of prison has the same opportunity. Some people are unable to find work and fall back into criminal behavior because it is all they have. I believe that all former felons can be reformed if we believe in ourselves, believe in something bigger than ourselves and put in the work. There are also ways our city can help us.
Last week, I spoke out at a Danville City Council meeting to encourage our elected leaders to "ban the box." On city job applications, there is a question that asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation.
For people like me, having to mark that box meant you were almost always excluded from an interview and a chance to explain yourself, even if you otherwise qualify for the job. When I first returned home after incarceration, I applied for every job I could find. Consistently, without an interview, my applications were ignored — from fast food restaurants to the city of Danville, and everything in between. I had to leave Danville to find work, driving more than three hours round-trip to and from a job in Salem. Despite living in Danville and paying taxes here, I couldn’t find a job here in the city I love.
The Danville Chapter of Virginia Organizing is asking City Council to ban that question from city job applications and allow more returning citizens to have a fair shot at a job and a chance to start over again — right here in Danville.
To be clear, banning the box does not mean that criminal history will be entirely ignored. City staff will still be able to ask about relevant convictions for sensitive positions and perform background checks. Banning the box means an opportunity for people to have a second chance and the potential for employment, which will decrease recidivism. Certainly individuals will have to put in effort, but banning the box will make that effort more likely to succeed.
Private employers are not affected by "Ban the Box." The initiative will include only city jobs and city job applications. The city of Danville will be making a strong statement in favor of rehabilitation, but it would not mean that private employers must follow along, although we hope that many will.
Right now, we have an opportunity to make Danville a place where people get second chances. I know I needed one and I know there are many people out there like me who are just hoping to contribute to our community. If we ban the box, we are supporting families and communities by keeping people out of prison and in their homes. Returning citizens could be working, paying taxes and making purchases to better our economy instead of being denied an opportunity to find a job — or worse — committing crimes and returning to prison.
I am honored to be one of the voices speaking out for the "Ban the Box" campaign. Several cities in Virginia have already made this move and I am optimistic that Danville will be next. I feel incredibly blessed to live in Danville at this moment, on the cusp of our city being the leader in the Southside Virginia in assisting former felons reintegrating into our society. It took a lot of effort on my part to get where I am, and I want to make sure that others have an even better shot at staying out of prison and making contributions to our community.
This is an attainable goal for Danville and I am confident our City Council will do the right thing. Thank you to those city councilors who spoke strongly in support of this vision for the city. All of us at Virginia Organizing are looking forward to celebrating this step forward with you! Let’s Ban the Box for good!
Jackson is a resident of Danville, leader in the local chapter of Virginia Organizing and one of the organizers of the local Ban the Box campaign. He spoke at the Danville City Council meeting on June 3.