The dignity of work: helping people with criminal convictions find jobs

“Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Crime?” prevents nonviolent offenders from re-entering society

by @rjgeary

In his job as a staff attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Daryl Atkinson fields calls from men and women who can’t get a job interview because they’ve got a criminal record.
The record may not even be recent. He’s been called by people in their 40s, people with substantial work histories, but who’ve lost a job and are in despair because of the question on every job application: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Yes or no. Check the box.
And the answer, which they must reveal, is yes. They violated a drug law 20 or 25 years ago.
Not unlike Atkinson himself, who did 40 months in an Alabama prison for drugs when he was young.
According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, 59 percent of those in prison for drug crimes are African-American—as Atkinson is. But blacks make up just 12 percent of the population and only 38 percent of those arrested for drugs. The U.S. is locking people up at a furious rate. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the inmates. All but a small percentage are guilty of nonviolent, usually drug-related, crimes.
The only difference between Atkinson and “a thousand men” he met in prison is that when he got out 14 years ago, he returned to a loving family who helped him change his life, go to college and go to law school. Along the way, he was able to satisfy the “character and fitness” standards of the bar.
Others, though, have no family help when they’re released. Soon they’re lost in a society that expects them to be employed while at the same time disqualifying them from many forms of employment, public assistance, and scholarships.
I met Atkinson when he spoke in Raleigh at the annual meeting of Congregations for Social Justice, a church organization working on issues like lack of affordable housing and re-entry problems for those formerly incarcerated.
The recidivism rate in North Carolina—the percentage of those who end up back in prison—is 36 percent, Atkinson said. “You want to know what cuts recidivism the most?” he asked the audience. “That’s right, it’s a job and a living wage. It ain’t rocket science. It’s being able to work and have dignity.”
“If you’re truly concerned about public safety,” Atkinson said, “you should be helping people who’ve been in prison get a job.”
Which brings me to the subject of Saturday’s “Moral March on Raleigh,” which I hope will be massive and a fitting renewal of last year’s electrifying Moral Monday protests.
Aside from the wonderfully diverse crowds, the best thing about these events is the reenergizing of the progressive movement—and the claiming of the moral high ground.
I subscribe to the view articulated by George Lakoff, the University of California-Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist, that progressives do a lousy job of communicating our core values. While we present data and never fail to see the other guy’s point of view, conservatives fire away with a righteous moral agenda that, even if people don’t buy much or any of it, supplies tremendous emotional power.
No surprise, then, that twice as many Americans call themselves conservative as progressive even when, on issue after issue, more take the progressive position.
Progressives, Lakoff recently said, “don’t know about framing, don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is. [So] they hide their emotion.”
Well, we’re not hiding our emotion in North Carolina. And if 2013 was the year of pointing out everything that the Republicans in the General Assembly did wrong, 2014 needs to see us on offense, putting our best values forward in the most compelling way possible.
So what do we stand for? I believe we stand for work and human dignity, which means a job at a living wage for everyone capable of working.
Also, again quoting Lakoff, for “the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument for our convenience.”
Work is first, as well, on the Rev. William Barber’s list of five fundamental demands for the Moral March—he terms it “pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability.” Public education, health care and voting rights follow, along with addressing “the continuing inequities in the criminal justice system.”
Circling back, surely we think that men and women who’ve been in prison should be required to work and not sponge off the rest of us, either by stealing or on welfare of some sort.
But then, what about the unemployed who haven’t done time? Do we put former prisoners ahead of them?
No, the moral answer is that everyone who wants to work should be able to find a job. If the private sector isn’t hiring, government can be the employer of last resort for jobs in health care, child care, construction—there’s lots of work to be done.
As Atkinison said, “Do we want folks to be contributors? Add to our tax base? Add to GDP? Or do we want people to be always dependent on government, either warehousing them in a jail cell or on public assistance?”
Oh, and let’s “ban the box” on employment applicatons, as many local governments, including Durham city and county have done without any harm at all.
It doesn’t mean background checks go away. It just means you hear what the applicant has to say first, before discarding him because he violated a drug law that lots of us who didn’t get caught violated too.
Moral March on Raleigh

Saturday, Feb. 8
State NAACP and allied civil rights, women’s rights, faith-based, labor, LGBT, immigrant justice, student and environmental communities.
Gather: 9:30 a.m., Wilmington Street near South Street. March: 10:30 a.m., Fayetteville Street to the State Capitol. Mass rally to follow.
This article appeared in IndyWeek with the headline “The dignity of work.”