Burke Brownfeld is a member of the Economic Opportunities Commission of Alexandria and a former police officer. This compilation of essays is republished from the Alexandria Times located in Virginia.
Catching Criminals is One Thing; Releasing Them Is Another
When I was an Alexandrian police officer, I spent my days navigating rough neighborhoods and hunting down wanted felons. I caught the 14-year-old kid who had just shot another teenager in the head, killing him. My partner and I tracked down a man who sodomized his daughter.
But when I reflect back on my time as a cop, the most gratifying parts of the job were not the chases or high-profile arrests. During our regular duties, we often had casual conversations with the men and women whom we transported to jail.
These discussions would lead to the prisoner explaining the struggles of drug addiction or other personal reflections. I noticed that, when we dropped off prisoners at the jail, they often would thank us.
Finally, I stopped one man after he thanked me and asked, "I don't get it. I just arrested you, what are you thanking me for?" The man replied, "Thank you for treating me like a man."
That one sentence was the most meaningful moment in my police career.
I realized that during our brief time together, chatting about life, we reached a common understanding. It revealed to me that my role in society was more than locking up criminals. I had been given a chance to reach across the line in the sand and offer a moment of respect and sympathy to my fellow man.
Years later, I have often thought of this brief exchange with the man whom I arrested.
Don't get me wrong, police work is a necessary and noble profession, and you won't hear me say that we should stop arresting people. However, I realized that the idea of fighting crime was more than just locking people up and having them serve time.
It dawned on me that we must reach past the seemingly permanent labels of "criminal" and "felon" and think about the next chapter in the lives of these men and women. The end game is not this archaic concept of locking them up and throwing away the key.
In fact, 95 percent of prisoners eventually will be released. When we unlock the cells for these prisoners to rejoin society, what's in store for them?
I am not implying that all ex-offenders are angels. I have looked into the eyes and fists of a few of the less-angelic bunch. In fact, two-thirds of people who come out of prison will be re-arrested within three years of their release.
No, I am talking about the group of ex-offenders who commit to changing their lives. There are incarcerated people who pursue educational and vocational training programs, with the hope of starting a new life when they re-enter society. This is great news, but society has shown that it's not quite ready for ex-offenders to live and work among the rest of us.
The reality for the imprisoned population in the United States is that only one in five prisoners will have a job lined up prior to being released. This is unfortunate since we know that there is a strong link between recidivism and unemployment.
We see these men and women standing around, begging for money or shoplifting from our stores.
We walk by them and may whisper under our breath, "Oh, come on, you look healthy. Get a job." But it's not that simple.
Many ex-offenders leave prison and apply to dozens of jobs but run into roadblocks and rejection at every turn. Should we be surprised when many of them feel that returning to a life of crime is their only option?
The Uphill Battle of Finding Work After Prison
Several months ago, I went on a quest to understand the challenges faced by ex-offenders returning home from prison.
As a former police officer, I understand the business of fighting crime through arrests. However, I wanted to look at this from a new angle: What do these former prisoners face when they walk out of jail and into society?
I contacted various ex-offenders and probationers, asking if they could help me understand their experience. I heard stories about job searches and interviews, and I was shocked by what I was told.
I asked a group of ex-offenders serving probation, "How has the job search process been for you all?"
Jon, who spent several years in prison, said:
I went around to so many businesses looking for a job. I got so desperate that I started telling people that I would do any kind of work. I would even scrub the toilets, if it meant I could get a paycheck.
Eventually, Jon found a job at Domino's Pizza that pays minimum wage. He is grateful for the job, but explained that with all of the court fees and fines that he still owes, he is left with little money to pay his bills.
This is a common challenge for many ex-offenders. Because many must pay fines, fees and restitution payments to the court, they effectively pay a 65-percent tax rate on their salaries.
Then I heard from Allan, who explained the job application process to me. Allan is a convicted felon. He told me that he walked into countless restaurants, looking for work. He filled out application after application but always hesitated when he arrived at the question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
Allan told me that when he checked the box "yes," most employers would take a look and say, "Thanks for coming in. We'll let you know."
Allan said that employers wouldn't even consider him as a potential employee once they saw that he was a felon. When he was called for an interview, the employer looked down on him. Allan explained, "People think you're an animal. We're still human. People make mistakes."
The story of Jerry Wimbush is what put this all into perspective for me. Jerry wants his story shared to help educate others about the ex-offender experience. Jerry used to deal crack cocaine on the streets of Alexandria. He has been in and out of prison for decades.
Jerry told me about his glory days. At about 6-foot-4 and weighing more than 300 pounds, he would stand like a giant in Alexandria's old open-air drug markets, peddling crack cocaine and making good money. He told me that, many times, he was released from prison and committed himself to living an honest life.
His first priority was to find a job. Jerry had experience as a tow truck driver. But once he had a felony on his record, no one wanted to hire him. Jerry felt that businesses "saw the criminal record as a black eye." Therefore, in need of an income and low on hope, he always returned to what he knew best: dealing crack.
Luckily, Jerry did turn his life around. Jerry's family supported him, he found religion during his last stint in jail and he started a property preservation company. Jerry is dedicating his business to helping other ex-offenders get back on their feet, because he knows how difficult it truly is, even when a person is committed to change, to find work and have a stable life after prison.
Do We Believe in Second Chances?
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 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. *