Monday, June 19, 2006

employment and stigma

i just received my copy of the bureau of justice statistics' survey of state criminal history information systems, 2003. reporting is inconsistent across the states, but there were 71,028,500 individual subjects listed in state criminal history repositories on december 31, 2003. this is a twenty percent increase from the 59 million files in 1999, but the bigger change is in their availability: online public and private access to these criminal history records has increased dramatically over this period.

this public stigmatization is reflected in the employment-related emails i get from former felons trying to make it on the outside. i don't usually share these publicly, but they very much inform my thinking and writing on the subject. here's a new comment on an old post concerning job fairs and expungement. though pete c. has an unusually strong educational background and work history, his experience will be familiar to many former felons:

Dear Dr. Uggen: I am a 48 yr old with a felony conviction (escape) in GA. I have a substantial criminal record (drug and property crimes) dating back to the 1970's due to a drug addiction that began as a teenager. Despite my addiction I was able to complete undergraduate school and attended law school before my disease overtook my life entirely. I entered treatment at age 30 and, with the help of support groups, was able to earn an MBA by age 32. I was able to find a good job at IBM but was laid off due to corporate down-sizing in 1998. I was convicted of felony escape in GA as a result of leaving a half-way house type of institution. I was sentenced to this institution for a misdemeanor theft conviction resulting from my having relapsed into my addiction. I served 20 months in a GA prison and have not been able to find sustainable (above-poverty level) employment since my release. In many ways my sentence (5 yrs.) has become a de facto "life sentence" due to the stigma of my conviction. It will probably shorten my life due to the fact that I cannot obtain affordable health insurance from an employer. One could even say that, in that respect, I have been given a "death sentence" of sorts. I have tried in vain to secure employment here in Augusta, GA but even the most menial positions in the labor market have rejected me. It is a very difficult existence... Pete C.

pete's comment quickly drew additional testimony from others in his shoes:

Dear Pete C: I understand your position you are not alone. I face the same fate. I'm on the grind seeking employment. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone that I served my country in the Gulf War. I have tried to lie about my past and I have also tried to be truthful but to no avail. It has been 8 years since this "F" has been on my record. I can't offer you any help only support. Keep your head up and I hope you have some good people in your corner.

on friday, jazz hayden asked two questions of the assembled luminaries at john jay. first, "how many of you have ever committed a crime for which you could have been incarcerated?" most hands quickly rose, then descended when he asked, "how many think you should lose your right to vote now because of that act?" we might ask the same thing about employment: how many think you shouldn't be able to make a living, eight years after your release?

one can find employers in most communities who might give a break to former felons -- either because they have a history themselves or because such efforts have been rewarded by highly productive and loyal workers truly appreciative of the opportunity. if anyone in georgia or elsewhere can offer some advice or contacts for pete c., please pass them along. i haven't walked in his shoes and my research offers nothing more than tired advice about "starting at the bottom, keeping the faith, and banging your head against the door." as long as you can take the pain, you've got a fighting chance of breaking through.

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