By Burke Brownfeld
Over the last few months, I have tried to come to a better understanding of what happens when a once-incarcerated person is released and confronts the daunting task of returning to society. After interviewing many people who have spent time in prison — and reading countless articles and studies that verify what these ex-offenders told me — I realized that something is wrong with our system.
When a person is found guilty in court and sentenced to prison, why do we continue to punish them after being released? Many ex-offenders feel that the title of felon or ex-offender becomes a lifelong brand. It simply cannot be overcome.
This is why we see ex-offenders with high hopes of a new crime-free life run into roadblocks and closed doors at every turn. This often leads them to return to a life of crime, which ends with another arrest and incarceration.
This is bad news for them and for society, especially when we consider that a year of incarceration in a Virginia prison costs taxpayers more than $25,000. Although I have presented a pretty bleak depiction of the ex-offender experience, there are multiple exciting opportunities for removing a few of these roadblocks to employment. What can we as a society do?
Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45) recently introduced a “ban the box” bill in the General Assembly. Although the bill was not passed this time around, it’s worth considering for future General Assembly sessions. If passed, this bill would remove the question about criminal history from state government job applications (with the exception of sensitive positions, such as law enforcement).
This would give ex-offenders the chance to — initially — be judged on the merits of their experience and personality, instead of their criminal past. The bill would not completely remove the state’s ability to take criminal history into account; it merely requires the state to wait until later in the application process.
Ex-offender advocates around the nation have embraced this movement. Ten other states and private retailers, like Target, have enacted “ban the box” policies so far. The idea is that if ex-offenders can get their foot in the door and reach the interview stage, they will have a better likelihood of receiving a job offer.
Without this new law, ex-offenders will continue being turned away purely based on the answer to one question on a written application. The City of Alexandria also has the opportunity to join this movement, by banning the box on city government job applications. Five other cities in Virginia have already chosen to ban the box.
This is all part of the process of humanizing the ex-offender population. We, as a society, must ask ourselves if we really do believe in redemption and second chances. If we do believe this, then let’s work together to help these ex-offenders reach the success that they’re seeking.
We should consider creating more incentives for local employers to hire from the ex-offender population. We also can increase funding for — and donate to — the honorable nonprofit organizations that dedicate themselves to helping ex-offenders, such as Offender Aid and Restoration, Virginia CARES and Friends of Guest House.
For years and years we have told ex-offenders to clean themselves up, get off drugs and get a job. Now is the time for us to meet them halfway and welcome them back to society with open arms instead of closed doors.
The writer is a member of the Economic Opportunities Commission of Alexandria and a former police officer. This is the final installment of a three-part series.