After serving 20 months of a 30-month prison sentence for drug crimes in Washington State, Tara Simmons looked for a job commensurate with her qualifications as a licensed registered nurse and a bachelor’s degree.
She had no luck.
“I interviewed [for] everything from a nurse position to being a representative in a call center for a cell phone company,” recalled Simmons of her 2013 job search.
“Every time, it was, ‘We want to hire you, pending a check of your background’—which I immediately told them about during the interview. They’d rescind the job offer.”
Simmons, 39, now works at Seattle’s Public Defender office, thanks to landing a Skadden Fellowship which focuses on civil rights, human rights and poverty issues.
Simmons, who expects to graduate this May from Seattle University Law School, is the first formerly incarcerated person to win a Skadden Fellowship.
But she’s also quick to acknowledge that for many formerly justice-involved individuals like herself, the struggle to find decent-paying employment often gets nowhere.
That’s one reason she is an outspoken supporter of an effort to expand Washington’s Certification of Restoration of Opportunity (CROP) law. The legislation, passed last year, removes some of the workplace, housing and hiring barriers faced by returning incarcerees—but, advocates argue, not nearly enough.
“It’s a good first step and a tool that is brand new to our state, but the CROP only goes so far,” said Simmons, a wife and mother of two, who was convicted of, among other things, illegally selling opioids, a crime she linked to her old methamphetamine addiction.
“It encourages landlords and employers to use their discretion in giving employment and housing … to formerly incarcerated people. But it doesn’t necessarily protect us. We need to work on expanding protections.”
48,000+ Legal Restrictions for Ex-Inmates
Nationwide, “collateral consequences” for the formerly incarcerated—legal restrictions on whether formerly incarcerated parents can, for example, volunteer in their children’s schools, vote, or get a real estate appraiser’s license—number more than 48,000.
Some of those consequences, observers contend, may be essential to securing public safety. (Say, refusing a massage license to a convicted sex offender.) Others pose undue, needless hardship, observers said.
“Fifty percent of the collateral consequences are job-related,” said Madeline Neighly, the Council of State Government’s (CSG) senior policy advisor on corrections and re-entry.
She is spearheading development of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, scheduled for a summer 2017 rollout of its initial re-entry resources for the formerly incarcerated. The clearinghouse also aims to be a resource for advocates of the incarcerated who have no legal expertise, as well as policy analysts, policy makers, lawyers and lawmakers.
It will provide state-by-state rules of clearing, correcting or expunging criminal records, a process that Nighly said goes by different names in different locales. Those clearances, as she calls them, broadly speaking, aim to make it easier for the incarcerated to have certain criminal convictions erased from the public record so they might find decent jobs, housing and so forth.
“This will allow state legislatures … to make sure they are not overly broad” in their restrictions, Nighly told The Crime Report.
“It will help them to see where their policies fit within their region and nationally … [so that there are rules] preventing a mismatch between somebody who could perform the job but, perhaps, shouldn’t and someone who could do the job and do so safely.”
Such efforts represent a growing recognition of the high costs to society of blocking ex-felons’ path to gainful employment, good housing and so forth. The Kentucky program, in fact, was supported by a coalition of lawmakers, civil rights groups and business leaders, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
After all, Neighly added, formerly incarcerated persons who can get an occupational license for plumbing, barbering, carpentry, cosmetology and so forth have a better chance of paying their own way and, consequently, lowering their risks of again landing behind bars.
Yet, the National Employment Law Center found, in its April 2016 Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People With Records” that 18 states had done nothing to undo their blanket bans against occupational licensing for the formerly incarcerated. Some 16 others had addressed the matter “minimally.” while two states needed to improve.
Just Six States Get ‘Satisfactory ‘ Rating
Only six states ranked as “satisfactory.” Four others —Kansas, Maine, North Dakota and New Hampshire—were rated as the most effective in addressing the issue.
Still, said the CSG’s Neighly, the “increased awareness” of the issue has spread to courtrooms.
“There have been judges who’ve asked the prosecutors and defense to present collateral consequences of a certain conviction,” she said. “The sentence is not the end of the story. We need to look long term.”
And that long view is taking place, said Merf Ehman, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, where Class A felony and sex offenses, among others, are excluded from the new restoration law.
“On the ground we don’t know right now how many have applied and received … [a certificate of restoration],” Ehman told The Crime Report.
Those results will become more obvious starting this month, she added.
“We are in the middle of this. What we know is that New York has some of the best laws regarding this. Illinois just amended theirs … Ohio just passed one … When we did this, there were 10 states who’d also done this, and now there are few more.
“It is just one piece of the movement toward helping people have a successful re-entry. What we’re hoping is that it means people can return to or get occupational licenses and enter careers with a living wage.”
Simmons hopes that any coming changes will deliver more normalcy to the lives of the formerly incarcerated. She wants to volunteer at her kids’ school, but that’s outlawed, even under the new Washington law enacted last year.
“I’m going to get a career,” she said. “I can have my own practice. I don’t have to rely on anyone to hire me.”
And that, she added, fuels her efforts to “change the system for other people.”
Ehman, the legal services lawyer, said the barriers facing returning inmates don’t just affect them alone, but also hinder their families.
“One of the biggest issues we hear about from people is ‘I’m out of prison … I can drop cupcakes off but I can’t stay and talk to the kids while they’re at school,’” she said.
“(They tell us) ‘I have to explain to my kids I can’t be a room parent or go on a field trip.’”
Katti Gray, a contributing editor of The Crime Report, covers criminal justice, health and education. She welcomes your comments.