They’ve Done the Time but Are Still Paying for the Crime

A new study shows that there are more than 6,000 restrictions nationwide keeping people with felony convictions out of work.

From National Geographic Channel’s Locked In, inmates in line to enter the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison cafeteria
From National Geographic Channel’s Locked In, inmates in line to enter the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison cafeteria Derek Bell

Charles McKinney is a convicted felon, and he has horror stories to tell about his quest to find work once he got out of jail.

“You drift from job to job so you don’t get the question asked, ‘Have you ever had a felony?’” McKinney says. “Once I came home … instead of being faced with the possibility of detection, I applied for things like construction work because you can get hired without going through all the red tape.”

McKinney, a Vietnam vet, committed two armed robberies after moving to New Jersey from Florida. He was caught the second time, but because of his military record, instead of the 25 years he faced in prison, the charge was dropped to robbery and he served just 17 months.

“God is such a good God,” McKinney says.

He spent years in construction jobs, afraid of what he heard from fellow former inmates about the problems they had with background checks in trying to find work. Eventually he drove a taxi, then trucks for the few companies willing to hire someone with a felony record. But the money was tight, even though both he and his wife were working.

“We stayed in low-income housing,” McKinney explains, adding that luckily, they had family who were able to pitch in when they ran short. “I didn’t really see it as bad, even though there were times we couldn’t pay the rent.”

Many former inmates with felony or serious misdemeanor arrests are in worse straits, because a new report finds that all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have legislation restricting employment. The “Jobs After Jail: Ending the Prison to Poverty Pipeline” report (pdf) notes that those restrictions affect those with any type of felony conviction; some nonfelony convictions, including controlled substances; and some kinds of misdemeanors. It was done by the Alliance for a Just Society, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of 15 racial-, social- and economic-justice organizations.

“We knew it was tough for people with records to get jobs, but it’s not just about discriminatory attitudes,” says report author Allyson Fredericksen. “These laws … ban people with conviction records from different types of employment, even if it seems they’ve been trying to rehabilitate themselves.”

There are a total of 6,392 such restrictions nationwide, the report finds—389 in Louisiana alone, followed by Illinois with 258, Texas with 248 and New Hampshire with 240. Fredericksen adds that many of the restrictions bar convicted felons from such health care jobs as optometrist or veterinarian, or from various public safety and legal occupations.

“It seems like these were laws that were enforced for public safety reasons, but in our analysis, it looks like many of them are farther-reaching than they might need to be,” Fredericksen explains.