Kendra* believes it's not her education, former salary or personal achievements that separates her from fellow job applicants. It's her 22 year-old criminal record.
In 1989 Kendra was charged and convicted of assault. Except for a small outstanding fee, she served her sentence.
After her release, Kendra found a sales job with Verizon Wireless. She was soon working beside the company's president and earning $86,000 a year.
"I always said that it was prayer that got me my job, because they didn't have to hire me. I felt like God was communicating with me at the time, and told me not to lie about [my criminal background]," Kendra said.
When the recession hit, Kendra was laid off. Now she is living on unemployment and struggling to find work. Kendra fears background checks keep her from employment. She feels like she's still serving her sentence.
"It's like parents, when [they] punish a child to help them learn the lesson. Well we've [been living with] that lesson for the past 19 years."
Kendra sat on the stairs of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle during her lunch break for Expungement 101, a workshop that teaches ex-offenders how to manage criminal records.
Those seeking to do so have new support. In May 2010 social justice groups including Sojourner's Place, the Tenants Union and the Seattle Human Rights Commission proposed anti-discriminatory legislation that would establish certain nonviolent and nonsexual offenders as a protected class under the Fair Housing Act. Exceptions would be made for jobs involving unsupervised children and vulnerable adults, or if there was a reasonable threat to the safety or welfare of the surrounding community.
The ordinance would make it illegal for employers and landlords to disregard applicants for convictions unrelated to the job or housing for which they've applied. Supporters of the legislation say they hope to break down barriers and combat high rates of recidivism.
"If you want an individual to succeed, you have to get at what happens after they're released," said Jonathan Grant of the Tenant's Union.
But ex-convicts face a Catch-22: "You can't find employment unless you have stable housing," Grant said. "And you can't have stable housing unless you have employment."
A greater number of people stand to get caught in this cycle. According to Columbia Legal Services, also proponents of the ordinance, 97 percent of the prison population will eventually be released. Nearly two-thirds of that national number have nonviolent offenses, and 28 percent of King County has a criminal or arrest record.
"If one in three people can't find housing or employment in Seattle, that' s a huge social justice issue," said Merf Ehman, an attorney who works with low-income communities.
Applicants for jobs and housing are often required to sign a waiver, releasing not only any existing court records -- which are already publicly available -- but a comprehensive summary of all arrests and police encounters, information that is otherwise confidential under the state's Criminal Records Privacy Act. Most only ask the individual if he or she has a criminal history but the City of Seattle requires that those denied employment based on a criminal record are notified and can appeal the decision. However, they do not provide space to elaborate on the crime, earning the proposal the nickname of the "ban the box" ordinance.
If enacted, the anti-discrimination rule would likely be enforced based on complaints, and the Office of Civil Rights would investigate.
Employers and landlords would be required to clearly link an individual's conviction record and a job or tenancy. Kendra's assault charge, for instance, would not be considered germane to a standard sales position.
Landlords are leery. Julie Johnson, President of the Rental Housing Association, said background checks are used to determine if prospective residents will "pay their rent on time, take care of the asset and be respectful to their neighbors." She acknowledges that it's difficult for some to find housing, but said that she hopes for a solution that would not place other tenants at risk.
"Landlords have the right to ask the most qualified person to rent their premises," Johnson said in an email. "Anything that could hinder that process is concerning to us."
Others worry that landlords and employers have the most to lose. They risk a tarnished reputation and higher insurance premiums should they house an ex-offender who becomes a repeat offender.
"Landlords, who have to do this on a day to day basis, they're looking for something that's as cut-and-dry as possible," said Elliott Bronstein of the Office of Civil Rights, "something that doesn't leave them open to judgment calls that they'll then have to spend money dealing with."
But Grant encourages those concerned about the liability of housing or employing past offenders to distinguish between criminality and a criminal record.
"Just because somebody has that criminal record, doesn't mean they engage in criminal acts right now," he said.
He cites research demonstrating that communities of color are often disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. Statistically, they have higher rates of arrests and charges that may not result in convictions.
"If you don't address that, you're just going to see this repeat cycle of people of color being denied housing and employment," he said.