Peninsula activist lobbies for federal ‘ban the box’ for ex-cons

Dorsey Nunn

President Barack Obama has received national — and in some cases bipartisan — support for his recent calls to reform criminal justice in the U.S., and some impetus for his ideas might be traced to San Mateo County-based activist Dorsey Nunn.

Nunn was among demonstrators who rallied outside the White House on Thursday calling upon the president to follow through on his proposal to “ban the box” on federal employment applications asking job seekers if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

Nunn, who is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and co-founder of the civil rights group All of Us or None, has been advocating this change for years. In 2013, his organizations helped pass California Assembly Bill 218, which prohibited public employers from asking most job applicants about their conviction histories.

California is one of at least 10 states that have removed questions about conviction histories from job applications, and 50 cities or counties have taken similar actions.

“Ban the box” legislation does not require public agencies to ignore criminal records where they might be relevant, such as when hiring law enforcement officers. And Nunn said the executive order he’s asking the president to sign would still allow federal employers to ask about conviction histories, but those questions would come later when an agency is ready to make an offer of employment.

In addition to preventing such questions from being used to screen out applicants, Nunn and his allies are asking for transparency and an appeals process. Applicants denied employment because of past convictions would have a chance to ask employers to consider mitigating factors, Nunn said, such as how long ago they were convicted and whether they’ve shown signs of being rehabilitated.

Rehabilitation is a deeply personal topic for Nunn, who, at the age of 19, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in an incident that left one person dead. Asked whether the life sentence made him think about giving up, Nunn said, “Hope is a hard thing to kill, homey.”

A father of two at the time of his conviction, Nunn said being able to maintain a relationship with his children was crucial to his rehabilitation.
“When I went to prison, I saw people abused and tortured,” Nunn said, “My contact with my daughter and other people helped me maintain my humanity in an ugly situation.”

Nunn was 31 years old when he was released from prison, but he struggled with crack addiction for several years, and says conditions in the East Palo Alto-Menlo Park community he was released into conspired to keep him addicted.

“The way we practice re-entry in California is reprehensible,” Nunn said, noting that preparing to leave prison can be nerve-wracking for inmates who know they will have no resources or support system on the outside.

Nunn eventually cleaned himself up, and with 25 drug-free years under his belt, the activist is something of an evangelist for sobriety, having founded Free At Last Community Recovery, a drug rehab center in East Palo Alto.

Despite running an organization with a $1.3 million annual budget, meeting Obama and his staff, and maintaining a quarter-century of sobriety, Nunn says he tries to remain humble and keep a good sense of humor about himself.

“I always joke with my kids: if you see me fall off the wagon, hide the check book!” Nunn said.

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