I Fought the Law and We Both Won: Maine Makes Efforts to Hire More Former Prisoners

“I had no prior history with the law other than breaking it.”  Those are the words of Shon Hopwood (pictured here), who went to federal prison at age 23 for bank robbery.  But Hopwood is on the other side of the law now – after serving his 13 year sentence, he’s graduating from law school and is heading off to a prestigious clerkship for a federal judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals.  He spent the long days of his sentence in the prison law library, teaching himself the law and eventually accomplishing something unheard of for a jailhouse lawyer – winning an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a fellow inmate.

Hopwood has found a life, and a career, after prison.  But many ex-offenders aren’t so lucky.  A history of incarceration greatly reduces an individual’s chances of finding a job. 

The unemployment rate for former prisoners in the year after their release is upwards of 50 percent, more than five times the national average.

The stigma of a past conviction stays with ex-offenders, even long after they’ve paid their debt to society and even if their prior conviction has little or no bearing on whether they would make hard-working, productive members of the workforce today.  One study found that 80 to 90% of employers said they would hire “former welfare recipients, workers with little recent work experience or lengthy unemployment, and other stigmatizing characteristics,” and yet only around 40% said they would consider hiring applicants with criminal records.

But increasingly, both liberal and conservative groups are recognizing the importance of ensuring that ex-offenders find employment.  For example, here in Maine, MaineWorks, an employment agency in Southern Maine, has a mission of employing workers with felony convictions.  MaineWorks supplies temp work for construction projects, and over its first two-and-a-half years, it has found work for about 200 ex-offenders.

Ensuring that ex-offenders have the opportunity to work is not just charity – it has important economic and social benefits.  Unemployment is linked to higher rates of recidivism, so finding stable employment for former prisoners can reduce the risk of repeat offenses.  And that, in turn, can reduce the skyrocketing costs of imprisonment, which run up to $60,000 per inmate per year.

And if that’s not enough incentive, the EEOC has made clear that under civil rights laws, it’s unlawful for employers to use criminal arrests and convictions as an automatic bar to employment.  Instead, employers should only refuse to hire someone once they’ve carefully considered if and how a past conviction could actually affect the employee’s ability to do the job. 

In the words of the bank robber turned law clerk:  “Well, I think it represents to federal prisoners and former prisoners, hope.  Because if I am given a second chance and allowed to have a job like that, maybe they can do it.”  Ex-offenders might not all be lucky enough to win a Supreme Court case and get an appellate clerkship, but everyone deserves that second chance.

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