How a criminal record becomes a life sentence

2017-03-17 08:01
Denzil Bailey (Supplied)

Denzil Bailey (Supplied)

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Cape Town - A DVD player, sound system and three chocolates stand in the way of Denzil Bailey having the opportunity to earn an honest living.

The 33-year-old driver has been unemployed for two years, scoring only short-term jobs with small companies which don't do thorough background checks.

Bailey has a criminal record, but while he has served his time behind bars, he says society and potential employers will always hold his past against him.

He spent two years in jail awaiting trial after he was caught in 2010 in possession of stolen electronic goods, which he had bought from men later convicted of housebreaking.

He was handed a suspended sentence.

"I got my freedom back, but companies will never look at me the same way again. In interviews, everything goes well until they ask about my record. If I play open cards, I never hear from them again."

Barred from society

The majority of South African employers disqualify applicants with a criminal record as a blanket recruitment policy without even considering their applications on merit, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) says.

"Aside from this practice being unconstitutional and a derogation of the right to equality and non-discrimination, Nicro believes that a considerable part of the problem of crime in South Africa is that most offenders who wish to lead a crime-free life are prohibited from doing so because of their past actions," CEO Soraya Solomon says.

"By barring such people from future opportunities, we are sending them the message that they are barred from society and have no value. It can then come as no surprise when such people often turn to crime."

Bailey, who now lives in Hermanus, moved to Cape Town last year to live with his mother and sister.

Hoping to find a job after living in Gansbaai for years, he was in for a disappointing wait.

"The only people willing to employ me were businesses or individuals looking for day labour, or small companies who don't do background checks," Bailey explained.

"Honesty doesn't work. The interview could be going brilliantly and I would tick all the boxes. Then when I tell them about my past, they promise to get back to me about my application. They never do."

'Why did everything change once he knew?'

In one instance, he was employed by a small equipment hiring company in need of a driver.

After only a short chat to see if he was physically capable of doing the job, he was hired on the spot.

"I worked for this business for seven months. Then one day in summer, it was scorching and I took off my T-shirt in the staff room. A colleague saw some of my tattoos and asked if I had been in prison. I told him that I had been locked up three years ago," he recalled.

Shortly thereafter, his boss asked him about his record.

"I told him about my past. He started watching me like a hawk, and later told me that he didn't want me to work there anymore because he didn't trust me.

"I worked there for half a year, without incident. I was surrounded by money and expensive tools, but I never touched it. I never gave him any reason to question my honesty – why did everything change once he knew?"

Bailey was the sole breadwinner in the house. His mother was unemployed and his sister was studying with the help of a US sponsor.

"Putting food on the table was my responsibility. I would go out in the morning in search of odd jobs and when I couldn't find any, I resorted to shoplifting," he said.

'I want to earn an honest living'

His luck ran out when he was caught stealing three chocolates, which he had hoped to resell for R30 to cover that night's supper.

Bailey pleaded guilty to shoplifting, but explained his financial situation and responsibility to ensure that his family was fed.

The magistrate handed him a suspended sentence, but this added another line to his criminal record, he said.

Finding a job thereafter was even more difficult.

"I don't want to work with anyone's money. All I want to do is be a driver. I want to earn an honest living."

Sometimes the inherent requirements of a job mean that the successful applicant must not have a criminal record for a type of offence, but a balancing of rights is necessary, Solomon says.

Employing ex-offenders brings "broad social benefits", she explains, quoting a German study which found the re-offending rate in the country was reduced by 30% and in the US by 20%.

'All I need is a chance'

"In the South African context, the government - and taxpayers - would save around R7.3m a month if 20% less of the 4 300 offenders released monthly did not re-offend. And South Africans would be and feel safer," she argues.

"For that reason alone, reintegrating ex-offenders and supporting employment as a key part of that process is in everyone's interest."

Innovative global companies like Virgin Actively recruit ex-offenders and recognise the commercial value of employees desperate to turn their lives around while making the most of their second chance, Solomon says.

Bailey insists he doesn't want to lie about his history, but chooses not to disclose unless he is asked.

"I steer clear of bigger businesses with HR departments who check these things. But I appreciate those who appreciate my honesty about my past and still give me a chance. I am done with my old life and I want to work hard to support my daughter. She is only nine years old."

Until he finds a permanent position from which he can earn a fixed income, he says he will continue to scrounge for work on construction sites, dabbling in everything from painting to carpentry.

"I will do what I can with the opportunities I get. I only want to do the right thing. All I need is a chance."

Read more on:    cape town  |  poverty  |  crime

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