Roberto Luna Jr. got the call sometime back in the summer of 2007.
It was an acquaintance -some guy he says hung around a bunch of his friends for a period of time-and he wanted to know where he could go to score some cocaine. Luna drove him to a housing project in the south end of Waterbury, sat in his car, and waited for him to do his thing.
“I didn’t take any money,” Luna says. “I didn’t exchange drugs. I didn’t do anything.”
Five months later, he was arrested on federal drug charges.
“I guess he was undercover,” Luna says. “They had the phone conversation recorded.”
They called it Operation: Royal Flush-10 months of undercover investigations that culminated with the arrests of more than 100 Latin Kings gang members in what is touted as the biggest drug bust in the history of Waterbury. The problem: Luna had no such affiliation.
“I was just part of the big fishing net they put out there,” he says. “I led ’em in the right direction and I went to prison.”
At the age of 24, he was looking at two years-a plea deal sentence-for conspiracy to sell narcotics.
“Every program imaginable for a first-time offender, I got denied,” Luna says.
Victor Cuevas, a state representative from Waterbury, hesitates to even consider Luna-who worked for him at the city’s Recreation Department, where Cuevas serves as Director-an offender. He says that Operation: Royal Flush reached too far in nabbing the kid he practically raised.
“If you asked me where to get cocaine, I could tell you,” Cuevas says. “I’m not in the drug game-that’s just the neighborhood we live in.”
When Luna was released from prison, he came out to a host of new problems: having to pay child support and find work with a drug felony-which barred him from returning to his old gig in the Recreation Department-on his record.
“I was terrified,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to find a job-or at least a decent paying one. I had to know somebody to get a job-that’s how I have one. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where I would be.”
He might be where so many of the other kids Cuevas has mentored; trying to run from his past with his criminal record strapped to him like a weighted vest. Ex-offenders leave the prison cell, and are stuck in a box-literally, Cuevas says. Now he wants to change that.
His bill proposal is to “ban the box”-or, eliminate the square on a job application asking if a prospective employee has committed a felony. The tentative legislation, which would apply to municipal and private employers-most state agencies already have such a ban-just moved out of the Labor Committee and onto the Senate floor.
“You hear the same story over and over again, about a guy who got incarcerated at 19, got out at 25, got a vocation in plumbing, but he can’t get a job because he has to check that box,”Cuevas says.
There are the anecdotes, and then there are the statistics that quantify them.
In 2008 the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that the 12 million to 14 million working age ex-offenders lowered the U.S. male employment rate by between 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with a criminal record jumped to 65 million-or a quarter of the population-in 2011, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Cuevas, who takes part in outreach programs for youth offenders, says that the individuals he works with are more than aware of the odds they face upon release. Although he urges them to acquire skills-a degree, or vocation offered by job training programs-many are less than optimistic. He recalls a conversation he had with one inmate.
“He goes, ‘why should I get educated? Nobody’s gonna hire me,'” Cuevas says.
So his proposed bill aims to give ex-felons-the nonviolent ones, anyway-a brighter outlook. But some have raised objections, and Business and Industry Association Assistant Counsel Eric Gjede is one of them.
Certain types of nonviolent felonies may make an applicant specifically unfit for a certain job, Gjede says.
“Something like cruelty to poultry is considered nonviolent offense,” Gjede said at a Public Employees and Labor Committee hearing several weeks ago. “You probably wouldn’t want that person working as a veterinarian. Computer crimes-you probably wouldn’t want that person in your IT department.”
The box, he says, has been an asset for employers looking to speed up what can be a lengthy hiring process.
“The hiring process is very expensive for employers,” Gjede said. “You have the interviews, the advertising for the job-it takes a lot of time. It makes it more expensive to not be able to weed people out.”
Gjede says that the Association might be able to support a different version of the bill if certain components are amended, and that Cuevas and the business community are currently working together on that.
“We’re committed to a second chance society,” Gjede said. “We’re taking a long, hard look at this, and we’re definitely committed to coming up with something that works for everyone.”
The bill is not looking to hide a person’s history-just allow for an applicant and employer to discuss it more intimately, Cuevas says.
“I’m not saying take away the right of the employer to ask the question in an interview,” he said. “But at least give the opportunity for people to get in the door and tell their story.”
Or it can lead right back where it started-behind bars, Cuevas says.
In 2014, the Congressional Research Service released a report highlighting a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 404,638 inmates released from state or federal prisons in 30 states in 2005. More than 75 percent were re-arrested within the proceeding 5-year period. About 77 percent of drug offenders-a rate that was second only to property crimes-were re-arrested during that time frame.
That’s rooted in a struggle-for employment and legitimate means to earn-that Luna can understand from firsthand experience.
“The job interviews were minimal, and the applications were endless,” Luna says.
We’re on a phone conference call with Cuevas.
“What happens to your friends, that don’t get one?” Cuevas asks him.
“They go back,” Luna says.
Luda didn’t. In fact, he went several steps forward. Through an adult education program, he earned a high school diploma and currently serves on Waterbury’s Democratic Town Committee. He says that when the ban the box bill is discussed on the Senate floor, the might be in Hartford with Cuevas testifying for it.
“How do you give somebody a second chance if you don’t even give them a chance to explain themselves?” Luna says. “Everybody deserves a chance to explain their situation.”