Barred from lawful employment?

January 15, 2011 

— Imagine this all-too-likely scenario:

It is 7:55 in the morning, and a man named John walks into a major store chain to apply for a job. He is dressed appropriately and is clean shaven and alert. The Human Resources person gives him an application to fill out.

John is nervous and happy to get this far in the process. He has with him his resume and his high school diploma. He applies for a job as a warehouse laborer. He is halfway through the application when he comes to a familiar box that asks "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

John knows that if he answers this question truthfully, he will never be interviewed. He will not get the chance to explain the nature of the crime, how long ago the crime was committed, when his incarceration ended and what successful rehabilitation efforts were made over the years. John will not get the chance to present letters of recommendation from community leaders.

This is a familiar story for men and women in our community. There's a common thread in all of them. This thread is that they were convicted of a crime and successfully met the requirements of the courts. Another common thread is that they have decided to change their lives, go a different path.

This change meant changing behavior, changing friends, learning to keep commitments, setting goals and loving themselves and others. They are willing to learn, willing to develop skills, willing to be of value to their community and their family. They work on a new life of repentance and dignity. They know that respect is not given, but earned.

People with criminal records represent a group of job seekers who are ready to contribute and be added to the workforce. We know that lack of employment is a significant cause of recidivism; people who are employed prove significantly less likely to be re-arrested. We also know that people with criminal records suffer from pervasive discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, housing and education. They have also become eligible for many forms of social service benefits. If we do nothing, are we guaranteeing more crime, unsafe communities and a higher cost to taxpayers?

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" tells the story of a young lady who made a mistake. For that mistake, she had to wear the letter "A," representing her crime. In her community, people watched her and told the story of her misfortune. There was no forgiveness from people who know the power of forgiving.

In cities and towns across North Carolina, courts and communities have a "Scarlet" secret. The secret is that even after these men and women convicted of felonies have paid the cost of punishment, they will be banned from employment and housing, and barred from teaching others, over and over again.

How long must felons pay? At what point will we forgive them and grant a second chance and fair employment? Only through divine intervention will some of them find the success of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, because too many must check the "Scarlet Box."

The Rev. Melvin L. Whitley lives in Durham and is a supporter of the Ban the Box campaign.

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