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Returning Citizens Seek a Second Chance

Former Inmates, Prosecutors and Others Favor 'Ban the Box' Law

Stacy M. Brown | 7/9/2014, 3 p.m.
As a returning citizen, Southeast resident Cliff Wallace said there are two concerns that stay at the forefront of his ...
The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated offenders one year after release may be as high as 60 percent and there's an increasing reluctance among employers to hire people with criminal histories. (Courtesy of the Harbrinetwork)

As a returning citizen, Southeast resident Cliff Wallace said there are two concerns that stay at the forefront of his mind: finding a job and reclaiming his name.

“Convict No. B27321. That’s who I am,” said Wallace, 38, who first went to prison 21 years ago at the age of 17. Wallace wouldn’t disclose the reason for his incarceration, but said in between his six and four year stretches, he’s had a lot of brushes with the law.

Wallace also counts as a proponent of legislation that the D.C. Council plans to pass on Monday, July 14, which prohibits employers from including on application forms a box that asks applicants to check if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

Many refer to the legislation as, “Ban the Box.”

“I have not been able to get employment, so I write,” said Wallace, whose written books to earn a living. The books can be found on his webpage, www.smashwords.com. “The government has turned incarceration into a money making scheme. They are more interested in revenue than rehabilitation and we’re citizens who don’t even have the rights of an illegal alien,” he said.

Lena Hackett, founder of Community Solutions, Inc., an Indianapolis-based consulting firm, who’s worked on numerous reentry programs including several involving the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Northeast, said it’s important that returning citizens successfully arrive back into their communities and are afforded employment opportunities.

“The fact is that many employers use the question of have you ever been convicted of a crime as a screen for who they move on to an interview phase without necessarily looking at the entire application,” Hackett said.

“In many cases the answer of ‘yes’ could be in regards to a conviction that happened several years ago and the person has not had any issues with the law since that time or the conviction could be completely unrelated to the employment opportunity.”

Even former prosecutors have lent a sympathetic ear to returning citizens and their struggle to find employment.

“I have seen first hand the havoc that the collateral consequence of crime has caused former offenders,” said Matt Mangino, a former district attorney in Pennsylvania.

A collateral consequence penalizes returning citizens long after they’ve paid their debt to society, Mangino said.

“A criminal record shouldn’t be a life sentence,” he said.

More than 40 percent of those released from prison are re-incarcerated within three years, either committing a new crime or violating conditions of parole, said officials at the Pew Center on the States in Northwest.

“The problem with our crowded prisons isn’t the result of punishing offenders for their criminal conduct, it is the ongoing sanctions that hinder former offenders from successfully reintegrating into society,” Mangino said.

 The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated offenders one year after release may be as high as 60 percent and there’s an increasing reluctance among employers to hire individuals with criminal histories Pew Center officials said.

Those successfully returning home from prison often identify employment as the most important factor that helps them stay crime-free, said D.C. Council members and legislation proponents Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).