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Wake-Up Call

RAP sheets belong in lead coffins


Had I not had a handy credential that looked prestigious because it was a high-quality knockoff, the concierge would never have let me use a toilet in the ritzy condo where I didn't belong, and  I would either have had a public accident, which would have made me an instant pariah among average people exiting a nearby house of worship who would not have sought to know the reason, or I would have been forced to find a secluded bush, hoping to scram in time before someone called the FBI on me.

Nature's call cannot be refused. But society's disdain can.

I don't know whether self-preservation is an instinct or a character quirk, but most folks have a "fight or flight” mechanism.

If former prisoners have no hope upon their release from jail, they will be forced to either die or become threats to us all, in order to survive. They are human and will stand their ground if cornered. Their backs are against a wall when they are barred from employment because of an indelible stigma that stocks with them for as long as there's flesh on their bones.

All people must be given a chance to cope and sustain themselves and regain not only individual freedom, but freedom to be an individual and meet the customary metric of dignity.

They must not be sentenced to what the director of the Centre for Crime Prevention in England once called "cushy idleness.” Employment while in prison is thumb-twiddling while stewing in rage. Only jobs in the world beyond bars can salvage their positive energies.

It's not a matter of rewarding convicts. It's not charity. Many former inmates have done miracles re-inventing themselves. The rest of us have as much a stake in those redemptive miracles as they do. Let's be practical.

That's why City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams' bill, co-sponsored by Council Member Farah Louis, is sensible and enlightened. It would allow qualified inmates to receive preparation and participate in civil service examinations. 

There are many job titles for which they, no less than the rest of the population, are qualified. They need to know the thrill of ownership, not only of earned possessions, but of their own lives. With that, they have everything. Without, nothing.

The Fortune Society has for more than a half-century shepherded ex-convicts (let's skip calling them "justice-impacted individuals")  by effectively advocating for their reintegration into the mainstream. They're called "fortune" because they're enablers of destiny, not beneficiaries of wealth.

Former inmates should be given an even break, but not preferential treatment that disadvantages non-offender applicants. Merit should never be determined by group affiliation rather than individual worthiness. There's too much of that in both the public and private sectors, and that includes "legacy" admissions for kids of donors or alumni and arguably even veterans.

The New York State Human Rights Law forbids discrimination on the basis of an arrest or conviction record. But discrimination can still exist when there is a level playing field. Selection must be dispassionately decided on a reckoning of who is best suited for the job. No hidden criteria or ideology-tainted agenda.

In our city, some gross inequities have lost their shock value. For example, the city will offer licenses to sell cannabis first to applicants who had been convicted of marijuana-related offenses before its legalization. This should not be a model for ex-offenders jumping the queue for civil-service positions.

The rules about the rights of what prospective employers can ask and what formerly incarcerated job applicants must disclose are somewhat ambiguous and contradictory. There's a lot of gray areas.

The City Council bill is a natural forward step from progress already made.

Not long ago, former prisoners were mandated to disclose their criminal histories to prospective employers. They could be asked if they ever had a "juvenile delinquent" status arrest, whether they ever had charges dismissed, an adjudicated arrest, violations, infractions or sealed convictions.

A truthful response would be career suicide. It was a brazen, cynical setup and mockery.  Guaranteed access. Surefire elimination.

Incarcerated people should get a copy of their Record of Arrest and Prosecution (RAP) sheets.  They have a right to challenge its accuracy and get it corrected if indicated. This advice is generally withheld from them, possibly because it can be a tool for the assertion of their rights and eligibility for credit.

They should also obtain a Certificate of Rehabilitation, which can  be, in effect, a personalized Declaration of Independence.

The "Fair Chance Act" of 2015 made it illegal for employers to request this information prior to conditionally making a job offer. The de Blasio administration’s "Jails to Jobs" initiative provided $19 million in annual funding for transitional employment for released prisoners. Given it was under de Blasio, that investment was probably on paper only. 

Fidelity bonds from the federal government are available. They make employers whole for any losses incurred from hiring eligible formerly incarcerated people who prove to have been dishonest. That's an incentive for employers to relax their exaggerated suspicions.

Prison to Employment Connection, a reputable organization in California, has solid data that vindicates faith in the capacity of many incarcerated people to re-enter society. Their recidivism rate is drastically reduced from those who have been exiled from society. 

Yet only around 8 percent of employers in Virginia admitted to being amenable to hiring anyone with "a record.”

Incarcerated people who get to work in the real world will join the tax base and save countless millions of dollars, but that alone is no reason to open the prison gates. But neither is bottomless societal retaliation a justification for keeping those gates bolted and padlocked forever.

A break when out of jail is not the same as a jailbreak. The strings we attach to their job prospects should not be hanging ropes.

An NYU professor, James Jacobs, blogging in the Washington Post in 2015, defends the view that employment discrimination against ex-offenders is rational, not immoral. He believes that the more knowledge available about job applicants, the better and that sins against society have no time frame for erosion.

That's a prescription for perpetuating them.

People straddling the extreme poles of either sugar-coating criminality and its consequences or "throwing away the key to the prison cell" are convinced they are taking the high and righteous road and won't shut up about it.

They're guilty of felony presumption.

"Give people a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” Former prisoners are not second-class claimants of this inspiration. That's why the Covid economic relief legislation opened up Pell Grants to incarcerated students.

The City Council legislation that would invite the participation of incarcerated people in the process of achieving actual civil service posts richly warrants support. But the successful applicants must be up to standard and held accountable for their performance, no more or less than other aspirants.

They should be hired if they meet the criteria. High-risk ventures deliver highly satisfying gains, when they are carefully thought through, as is the Council bill. 

If we are entrenched in the habit of punishment immemorial for incarcerated people and always expect the worst of them, our grim prophecy will come true and likely haunt us.

Let's not rush to judgment. These people already have two strikes against them. Give them a shot at civil service.


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • dkagan17

    Great insightful piece. I did nearly two decades in prison and when I came home, I paid for and took every civil service exam I qualified for. Today, I have a well paying civil service job with benefits for myself as well as my family.

    Thursday, October 6 Report this

  • redhog357

    I recall a few years ago a crime story that made the evening news, though just barely. A person was pushed to the subway tracks by a stranger who then fled. At least one bystander observed it, but took little note and no action. He was reading an investors' journal. Another bystander leapt to the tracks and brought the victim up to the platform. The victim was spared injury. However, the "Good Samaritan" was struck by the train and died a few days later. I think he was engaged to be married. I know he had formerly been incarcerated for, I think, a felony. This demonstrated the complexities of judgement and affected me a lot.

    We can't always predict who will save us and themselves and who will shrug their shoulders and whistle Dixie.

    Monday, October 10 Report this