[EXCLUSIVE] by Susan Ashline
Darnell Jerome is looking for a job like his freedom depends on it.
That’s because it does.
The 20-year-old Rochester man faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for lying about his criminal record on an application related to his employment search.
“I just wanted a job,” said Jerome.
Sentencing is April 21 in U.S. District Court in Rochester.
Jerome was a teenager living with his mother in a low-income neighborhood in the Upstate New York city when he stole a car while displaying “what appeared to be a firearm.” In February 2016, he was sentenced to five years probation for attempted robbery in connection with the crime. To avoid prison time, he was ordered to go to school, or get a job.
Jerome said he’d completed one year of courses at the community college, but when he went to enroll for the fall semester, he was told there was a hold on his account. He owed $200. He would have to find work.
The Probation Department provided little help, said Jerome. “I was given a packet and sent to a meeting downtown. I honestly didn’t find it useful.”
Jerome said he downloaded a job search website to his phone and applied for the first job he spotted: a cook at Famous Famiglia Pizzeria in the airport.
“I was just thinking it’s a job at the airport. It’s going to help me get back to school and pay my bills,” he said.
He applied for it online. The restaurant was within Rochester city limits. Rochester has a “ban the box” law, making it illegal for employers to inquire about criminal history before the end of the first interview. Jerome’s prospective employer interviewed him over the phone and asked him to go the restaurant for orientation.
The restaurant was beyond a secure area of the airport.
Jerome attended orientation. He was hired and told to show up to work the next day. He was given an application to fill out for a security badge that would allow him access beyond the airport screening devices so he could go to work.
The security access form asked a series of questions, including if the applicant had been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. Darnell checked “no,” though he’d been convicted of attempted robbery just one month earlier. The application indicated a conviction such as his would bar him from obtaining a security badge. Along with the application, Jerome provided federal authorities with identification and fingerprints.
He worked three months before a federal air marshal showed up at the Probation Office to question him.
Authorities charged Jerome with making a false statement. The penalty upon conviction: up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department would not comment on the case.
An element of the crime is that the act was done “knowingly and willfully.” To secure a conviction, the prosecution would have to prove Darnell intended to check the “no” box.
During a January trial, the marshal testified Jerome had told him he was aware he checked “no.” The prosecutor showed images of items that airport restaurant employees could access after gaining security clearance.
“They were showing pictures of knives and cleaning chemicals, insinuating I’m a terrorist; that I would have access to get to passengers or get on the plane with them,” said Jerome. “I was like, really? Me? A terrorist?”
Jerome said his motives were not sinister. “My intention in filling out that application was to get a job.”
Jerome said he understands the importance of the security screening. “It is their duty to make sure every citizen boarding a flight is protected.” He added, “I’m not the person to be looked at. Despite my recent felony conviction, some people turn around. And I was obviously trying to turn over a new leaf.”
Jerome said he checked “no” accidentally, because he wasn’t reading the form carefully.
Rochester passed a “ban the box” law two years ago, but the federal security access application is an exemption. Rochester City Councilman Adam McFadden was instrumental in developing and passing the law. He said he suspects Jerome checked the box knowingly, but not because he’s a terrorist. McFadden said he knows how difficult it is for those with a criminal record to find employment. He said he personally knows many individuals whose criminal pasts continue to plague them during job searches for years, leading their lives down a path of ruin.
Jerome echoed those concerns. He said in the eyes of the eyes of the criminal justice system – he’s branded for life.
A jury convicted Jerome on January 10. Sentencing is set for April. Though the prosecutor argued for Jerome to be sent to jail while awaiting sentencing, the judge ordered Jerome to remain free, but on one condition: He goes to school or finds a job.
Jerome said he’s trying his best – considering accepting any type of work – and hopes to earn money to pay his school bill so he can go back to college.
“I’ve even asked my probation officer, ‘Is there any help? Are there any conventions? Do you know any places that are hiring?’”
He’s submitted more than 30 applications, he said.
“They’re not willing to hire me. It hasn’t made me get up and think differently any day, other than keep trying. Not everyone’s going to say no.”
Even if someone says “yes,” on sentencing day, that may no longer matter.
“I don’t know how it’s going to go April 21,” said Jerome, of the date he will appear in court to learn his fate. “But I have fingers crossed and God ahead of me.”
And, he has a plan.
“To show [the judge] I’m doing beyond good with my appointments at probation, and finding employment, and trying to figure out something with school. At least if I get that fine paid, I can show her it’s paid and I’m ready to go for the fall semester. Or, I’m willing to take summer courses.”
Jermone had one question before ending the interview.
“Do you know where I can find a job?”