Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Connecting with communities

Samantha McAleese, PhD Student, Sociology, Carleton University
with input from staff at the John Howard Society of Nova Scotia

Last month, I travelled out east to do some work with the John Howard Society of Nova Scotia. The purpose of this trip was to participate in a public learning event on pardons and record suspensions, similar to a forum that I helped organized with CPEP back in 2013. Despite the fact that winter was still looming over the Maritimes, everyone I met had a spring in their step and people were eager to understand how to better support individuals with criminal records in their communities.

The John Howard Society [JHS] has provided supports to criminalized individuals and their families for many years. Across Canada new resources have emerged in response to changes in penal policies, including services to help people who want to receive pardons or record suspensions. The John Howard Society of Nova Scotia [JHSNS] recognized a need in this area after the policy changes in 2010 and 2012, and now offer a Record Suspension Application Service to people in the area they serve.

Another major support that is offered by most JHS offices is employment preparedness. These programs often involve resume writing workshops, interview preparation, and help with job searching. Both frontline workers and managers at JHSNS have noticed an increasing struggle amongst criminalized persons when it comes to finding and securing a job in the community, despite being properly trained, well prepared, and eager to work.  Some of the challenges those they work with face and what they achieved during the public learning event are described below.

Through these [employment] initiatives we have observed many of our clients struggling to find gainful employment because they have a criminal record… As a result, we see many men and women trapped in income assistance programs or in low-wage, insecure and irregular employment because their criminal record effectively renders them ineligible for jobs that they would otherwise be qualified for.

For some, getting a record suspension would be a solution to their problem. However, even those who meet the eligibility criteria, and pose very strong candidates, are often unable to afford the expenses attached to applying for a record suspension. On a regular basis we encounter the following situation: Without gainful employment, individuals can’t afford a record suspension. At the same time, without getting a record suspension individuals cannot obtain gainful employment.

This problem, paired with the complicated process of preparing a record suspension application, inspired JHSNS to host a public learning event on record suspension policies and application procedures. Through the event, we wanted to improve understanding of the issue and the application process among community agencies, employers, and the public. Further, we wanted to start a local conversation about it. Given the turnout at the event, and the great discussion during the Q&A period, we feel that we accomplished both of those goals – although our work certainly isn’t over yet!

To echo the comments provided by staff at JHSNS, the public learning event held at the shiny new Halifax Central Library was very successful. Not only was I able to educate community members and frontline workers on the intricacies of the record suspension application process, but they educated me on the obstacles faced by their clients. One woman reminded me to think of victims, and specifically victims who are owed restitution. If criminalized persons are unable to find employment, then restitution will go unpaid and reparation for harm caused will never be achieved. Another attendee spoke to individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and their struggles to communicate with the Parole Board about their record suspension applications. Finally, I got to hear stories from people who have been successful in obtaining their record suspensions, and who can now move forward with their employment and education goals.

As I continue my work around issues of re-entry I hope to engage in more public learning events like the one in Halifax and look forward to building relationships with individuals and community organizations that are focused on justice that stems from compassion, understanding, and forgiveness, rather than fear, anger, and exclusion. 

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