July 15, 2005
In Jack, a crime of which we are all
Cons use the term “felon-friendly” to denote employers who, after a background check, will still hire convicted felons.
Many companies are felon friendly, so finding a job isn’t difficult — as long as the former inmate is willing to sacrifice a great deal of time, income and esteem to work hard for lower wages.
But if they don’t, who can blame them? We have set the conditions for that felon’s repeated failure. Who can be at fault but those of us who sit in comfortable chairs and think we’ve gained the moral high ground because we have never gotten caught committing a crime — and most of us, if not all of us, commit some crime in our lifetimes, misdemeanors (speeding, building that shed in the backyard without a permit, cheating a few office supplies, using work’s computers or copiers) or felonies (cheating on our taxes, smoking a little “weed” now and then). The difference between an offender and an “innocent” person is merely the lack of being apprehended.
And most of us suffer for our crimes with guilty consciences, close brushes with being caught, even being caught and explaining our way out of our mistakes. This is good enough. Justice is done. But I also believe that once a felon has served his term, done his parole, then he’s paid his debt. Period. To make him or her pay more is plain malice.
A file of a recently released felon tells this tale more aptly than principled, abstract reasoning. The file separated from Jack (this is what we’ll call him) at the corner of 17th Street and Beardsley Road. It’s an extensive sheaf of papers and forms enclosed in a folded piece of corrugated cardboard. Included are Jack’s work history, his personal information and list of references, along with forms about interviewing for jobs, tips on finding employers and filling out job applications. All these forms come from the Missouri Department of Corrections and The Helping Hand of Goodwill Industries.
More than anything, the sheaf proves what Jack is up against looking for a job.
To start, Jack’s work history for the last ten years before his incarceration shows what many of the working poor deal with in jobs and job seeking. From 1995-2002, Jack worked four jobs, mostly in food service and general labor. His wages climbed from $7 to $7.25 an hour over nearly eight years, each job starting between $6.50 and $7 an hour, with increases of 25 cents to 50 cents after a period of probation. In 2002, Jack went to jail after working as a gardener and maintenance man at a local restaurant chain.
What Jack did to deserve a prison sentence is unclear. But from the personal information, it’s clear that Jack didn’t graduate high school but instead earned a GED and went to a low-level engineering college for a year, taking chemistry and drafting classes. It’s also evident from the file that he had a drinking problem, and was possibly doing drugs. Most of us understand how a guy can screw his life up with drugs and alcohol, and it’s possibly these things that lead to his incarceration.
But it’s also clear from the file that Jack, particularly after his prison stint, is trying to get his life back on track. Even so, he’s has a tougher climb than us middle-classers.
Applying for low-wage jobs is always a chore, but one usually completed with one sitting with a job application. Jack doesn’t have the luxury of filing a resume and some personal information to be considered for a job. Instead, he has to provide an extensive work and personal background, as well as a long list of references.
Plus, he worked his ass off trying to get a job. The state and Goodwill demanded he keep a list of jobs he applied for, when, whom he contacted, and the outcome of each contact. From June 27 to June 29, if the file is accurate, Jack contacted 29 possible employers, most of which were in food service and base-line labor — from pizza joints to auto parts stores to assistant to hodcarriers at construction companies.
Then, personal notes have the addresses and phone numbers of further job contacts, some 27 in all, and also a list of homeless shelters and re-start programs for those trying to build new lives.
What’s clear for Jack is that he’s going to have a rough time of it. These are the kinds of jobs people in great need apply for. And they are the kinds of jobs that, after that initial 25- or 50-cent raise, promise only a long-term stint in steamy, repetitive and dead-end work.
What the file reveals about Jack reminded me of a friend, a good and loyal man, who was released from the state penitentiary in Cameron after a six-year haul on a second-degree murder charge. The only crime he’d committed was being in the wrong place with a pistol. Two grand juries had given him no-true rulings, and the state declined to press further charges — until a new prosecutor arrived at the Cass County courthouse and decided to start digging up old cases upon which to build his tough-on-crime career.
Howard had no money for a decent attorney and went to prison. Just two years ago, because of the good graces and hard work of Kansas City attorneys Kent Gipson and Sean O’Brien, Howard had his conviction overturned and, instead of risking another trial, settled for a manslaughter charge and time served plus a year parole.
Howard was an experienced truck driver, over-the-road and in-city. As a matter of fact, he was apprehended in Omaha and extradited to Cass County from the wheel of his truck, which he drove a regular route as a salesman and delivery man for popular soft drink company.
After his release, Howard wanted to use his commercial driver’s license again. But his quest was to find a company that, in post-9/11 America, would employ a felon convicted of a violent crime. He looked for over six months, contacting sometimes three and four trucking firms a day, facing disappointment after disappointment. At one time, he even wished to be returned to prison, thinking that a life of low-level misery was better than one of shear torture.
Fortunately, just when things look bleakest, Howard found an honest man who owned a small, regional trucking company. The man was willing to give Howard the wheel of one of his semis, taking a risk that few others seemed to be willing to take.
But it wasn’t much of a risk. Howard is a hard worker, determined and ambitious. Like Jack, Howard has a GED and did short-time training. But unlike Jack, Howard went to prison with a skill and didn’t have a drinking problem.
But both share one thing — nobody likes a felon, which is too bad because it’s a rare person in America who doesn’t know or have as a relative at least one person who’s done time.
A thin-but-distinct line lies between justice and vengeance. With justice, a person pays for their crime and returns to society. In vengeance, the person pays for their crime and keeps on paying, regardless of the severity of the crime. Or even if what was once legal becomes a crime, as is often the case when legislatures react against what they see as a moral transgression, i.e., many of our federal and state drug laws, anti-terrorism laws that restrict free speech and association and municipal codes and zoning laws that turn our urban cores into look-alike, pre-constructed and uniform suburbs.
If Jack dropped his file on purpose, if he chose to leave the aggravation of the working world for something else — homelessness, petty crime or drugs or alcohol — I can’t blame him. The indignities of searching for work when one has the scales rigged against him can make something else, at least in the short term, inviting.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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