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Published January 02 2012

With online background checks readily available, felons’ housing choices scant in F-M

FARGO - For the first time in four years, 22-year-old Christopher Anton is living with his parents again. It’s not by choice.

Anton and his 28-year-old wife, who both have felony convictions on their records, moved into his parents’ house after their apartment building in Fargo was sold by Craig Properties to Goldmark Properties several weeks ago.

Craig Properties rents to felons, Anton said, but for those with recent convictions, Goldmark does not. So he was faced with one of the common difficulties felons struggle with every day: Where can I live? And who will give me a job?

Anton is just one of many felons in the region who face with those questions. Cass and Clay County court statistics show the number of felony convictions in the last few years has increased.

In 2008, 505 offenders were sentenced for felonies in Clay County, compared with 533 in 2010. In Cass County, 1,206 offenders were sentenced in 2008, and 1,380 were sentenced in 2010.

Statewide, North Dakota felony convictions increased from 3,204 in 2008 to 3,445 in 2010. Minnesota, though, decreased from 16,168 in 2007 to 14,840 convictions in 2009 (2010 data was not available).

Finding employers who don’t want to hire a felon or landlords who don’t want to rent to them is nothing new. But with criminal background checks readily available online, the challenge of answering those questions has become even steeper.

A place to work

Chad Tosterud, a customer service specialist with Job Service North Dakota in Fargo, thinks the easy accessibility of criminal records is a huge barrier to the success of offenders transitioning back into society.

The proportion of businesses that do background checks on employees has grown to 90 percent since 9/11, the Society of Human Resource Management estimates.

Tosterud thinks there has been a significant rise, especially in the last two or three years. Because of the recession, he said, more job-seekers are applying for jobs.

“Due to the greater number of people looking for work, employers were looking for tools to help them screen that multitude of candidates that they are encountering,” he said.

And it’s not just criminal records that can hurt, Tosterud said. Online credit checks by employers and landlords are also common.

“A large amount of ex-offenders don’t have good credit, or any credit at all,” said Tosterud, who specializes in helping offenders find jobs.

Steve Mottinger, an attorney in Fargo, is worried about the easy availability of online information, especially because employers often make snap decisions based on what they’ve read in a background check.

“You can find amazing things on the Internet, much of which isn’t necessarily anyone’s business,” Mottinger said. “Employers are savvy enough to do that.”

Although the availability of that information can be bad news for past offenders, Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said it’s still the public’s right to know.

“Shouldn’t the potential public have access to that information?” Burdick asked. “And then shouldn’t they be able to decide what to do with it?”

A place to live

Anton was convicted in 2008 for selling an ounce of marijuana.

“It was the only time I ever did something that stupid,” he said.

He realized what a felony conviction on his record would mean and asked the judge for a sentence that would allow him to clear his record if he completed probation. His request was denied.

When Goldmark took over his apartment building, the felony record became an issue.

Kurt Bollman, executive vice president of Goldmark, said his company has a policy of not renting to convicted felons until five years after they complete their sentence.

“Residents of a multifamily apartment community like to know that the landlord is taking every reasonable measure to make sure that they’re not living amongst criminals,” he said. “We want to provide the safest, most desirable community we can.”

Craig Properties, which managed the building where Anton lived before Goldmark, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Pete Sabo, another landlord who is willing to rent to felons, said he doesn’t blame other rental companies for not renting to those with felony convictions. He understands the risk in renting to a past offender.

At the same time, he feels sorry for people who come to him unable to find a place to live.

“Yes, they made a mistake,” Sabo said. “Yes, punish them, but don’t give them a life sentence.”

Offenders who can’ find any housing often look to homeless shelters as a solution, said Rob Swiers, assistant director of New Life Center in Fargo.

Swiers said it’s not uncommon for people who come to his facility to have felonies on their record. They tell him they’ve had difficulties finding a place to stay, he said.

Some offenders may also turn to their friends or family when they need a place to live, as in Anton’s case, said Craig Richie, an attorney in Fargo.

But that’s not always a good thing, Richie said. When felons look to their friends for help, they might be going back into the situation that got them in trouble in the first place.

“But what do you do?” Richie asked. “They have no place to go.”

That’s why Richie thinks it’s important for society to provide things like transition houses – different than halfway houses – to help felons get re-adjusted. He wanted to open such a facility in 2010 in Fargo, but couldn’t get the necessary zoning permit.

“We’re talking about people who have served their time, and have done what they need to do,” Richie said. “But really, they’re serving a life sentence because no one is going to take a chance on them.”

Richie and Mottinger say attorneys recognize the collateral consequences convictions have for offenders. Some options, such as the deferred sentence Anton was denied, can help to minimize those consequences, but not always.

“We’re lawyers, we’re not magicians,” Mottinger said. “A lot of times, there’s not a lot you can do to resolve those issues.”

For Anton, the consequences could have been worse. He considers himself lucky to have a family that is letting him and his wife stay in their home and an understanding employer.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. When they first moved in with his parents, Anton and his wife didn’t have a door to their room, not an ideal situation for newlyweds.

“We had to ask my grandpa to come and put a door in it so we could have some privacy,” he said.

After their trouble with finding a rental, the Antons plan to try to build up their credit and save until they can buy a house – however long it takes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535