Dec. 10, 2009— -- When Jason Bell was 16 he drove into a state park without an entry permit sticker -- and got pulled over.
That $10 ticket, together with another misdemeanor charge he got in college, nearly kept Bell from getting a job as an account executive in Lincoln, Neb., almost 10 years later.
Amanda Schroeder, now 28 and a child-protection specialist living in Denver, said a minor "in possession" drinking ticket she received in high school stalled her efforts to get a social worker's license in Colorado.
Bell and Schroeder are among an increasing number of job applicants who find that small mistakes come back to haunt them in the tight job market. And in many of these cases, nothing short of an official clearing of the records or pardon will pave the way to successful employment.
"The smallest things count," said Oleg Stepanyuk, staffing manager of the Work USA employment agency in Lincoln. "When the search is narrowed to four or five people that are equally qualified, then the recruiters, the hiring managers may just compare the background check reports and just go with the one that has a clean sheet."
Mathew Higbee, a lawyer with California-based Higbee and Associates, said he has also noticed the trend. Higbee's firm operates in 11 states, handles more than 1,000 cases a year and hosts a Web site called RecordGone.com.
"We see about 50 percent of our business are people looking to clear their record of misdemeanor crimes," he said, adding that it's "frequent to hear someone say they've been denied a job because of a low-level offense."
As Higbee's firm illustrates, people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to clear their records. But just how that record-clearing process works depends on where the offense was committed. In some states, courts handle those situations. In others, including Nebraska and Alabama, getting a "clean sheet" requires an official pardon.
And that can be a tedious and time-consuming process.
Schroeder spent almost eight months trying to track down the documents she needed to request a pardon from the Nebraska board. She was 18 when she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol at a party.
"At the time, I didn't think it was a serious issue at all," Schroeder said. But now, she said, if she could go back in time and talk to herself as a teenager, she'd say that "it is serious and this does follow you around forever."
Requests Pour in for Pardons
Bell, now 31, received a park sticker violation and then later he was charged with maintaining a disorderly house in college when was 21.
In December 2006, he applied for a local position the insurance company AIG, but got a call saying he had to expunge his record to get hired. Because Nebraska doesn't expunge records, Bell called the pardons board, and was told that his offenses were too minute and miniscule to warrant a hearing -- unless he could present proof that the offenses were indeed prohibiting him from getting a job.
"I figured, well, you know, that's stupid, why would (AIG) write me a letter?" Bell said. He did get the letter, though, and several months later he had a hearing. Several more months later, he received a printed pardon -- which he decided to frame.
"We're getting so any more misdemeanors now just because employers are going beyond the felony," said Sonya Fauver, Nebraska Board of Pardons administrative assistant. "What may have been not an issue five, 10 years ago on a criminal history record is now becoming an issue."
And it's not one welcomed by the Nebraska Pardons Board: the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general.
"It's a complete waste of time," said Attorney General Jon Bruning. "I have no interest in looking at people who have a park sticker violation. I would guess that my colleagues don't either. I have more important things to do."
Even so, the requests keep coming. Shirley Hartley, a pardon unit administrative assistant with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, said she has been seeing about one-third of applicants seek pardons for misdemeanor offenses. And many of them are listing employment as the reason.
To any federal unit handling such requests, they cost not only time, but also taxpayer money that pays for the entities' operation.
"I do believe that employers need to take a bit more time and look at the crime," said Fauver, "Was it the one and only? Was it a minor situation? Instead of just automatically throwing them in the 'no' pile."
In the meantime, the boards are adjusting. Bruning said that if the influx of minor crime pardon requests continues, Nebraska may introduce a separate procedure for them.
At the recent hearing on Nov. 6, to which Schroeder drove 500 miles to attend, 11 low-level offenses including hers were pardoned with a single vote -- and with no testimony. Schroeder said she can't wait to officially have a clean record.
"It's embarrassing," she said. "It's old news."