Root and Rebound guides employers in hiring the formerly incarcerated

Sonja Tonnesen, Alton (Coach) McSween, and Katherine Katcher

Root and Rebound’s Deputy Director Sonja Tonnesen, community partner Alton “Coach” McSween, and Founder & Executive Director Katherine Katcher.

Root and Rebound, a Berkeley, Calif., based legal advocacy nonprofit organization, has published the Guide for California Employers: Hiring People With Criminal Records.

Using a question-and-answer format, this 13-page guide lays out all the basics that California employers interested in hiring those with criminal records need to know. It covers everything from what they can and can’t ask applicants based on federal and California state law to the ins and outs of background checks.

It includes advice on how to weigh the risk of hiring someone with a criminal record, while at the same time protecting their rights. There’s a special section on benefits and incentives for employers that includes such things as the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Federal Bonding Program. It’s available for free on the Root & Rebound website.

Root & Rebound is a legal advocacy organization completely focused on reentry. “As far as we know, we’re the only legal advocacy organization devoted solely on improving the lives of newly released people across many areas of law,” says Sonja Tonnesen, deputy director.

“We’re reentry generalists—we advocate for laws to be fairer, and to support people with criminal records in achieving stability. Like a general practitioner is in the medical field, we ask holistically what a reentering person’s needs are to be healthy and stable, and we work alongside our clients to create realistic reentry and advocacy plans that will support their success and achieve their goals.”

The idea for the Guide for Employers came about from dealing with an employer who wanted to hire one of Root & Rebound’s clients but had a lot of questions about the legal implications. So the staff members decided to create a manual to help others who would need the same type of information.

The nonprofit was started in October 2013 by Founder & Executive Director Katherine Katcher and Tonnesen, two recent graduates of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Their goal is to reduce barriers and maximize opportunities for those in reentry. They also work with a senior advisor who is ar reentry attorney based in Los Angeles and a growing legal and support team.

Katcher and Tonnesen spent last fall meeting with professionals – other attorneys social service providers, formerly incarcerated advocates, academics and other reentry-focused individuals – to better understand the needs and gaps in reentry and to create a strategic plan. They began taking on clients at the beginning of 2014.

Expecting to take on only five clients in its first year, by mid-summer they had represented nearly 15 individuals on their legal issues in reentry, as well as provided legal advice and information to many others.

The organization’s next big project is a “Legal Rights in Reentry” manual intended for those in reentry and their advocates—the first of its kind in California, and one of the first in the country. The manual covers eight areas of law—employment, housing, obtaining identification and other key documents, credit and debt (related to a conviction), family law, probation and parole, public benefits and continuing education.

Some of the information in the manual is a direct result of what the attorneys learned in their dealings with clients as they helped them face the multitude of roadblocks they encounter.

The manual will be available on Root & Rebound’s website in November or December. The organization plans to do a training program connected to the manual with workshops at government agencies and other nonprofits that interface with people who were formerly incarcerated.

To learn more about what Root and Rebound is all about, visit the organization’s website at. http://www.rootandrebound.org