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Buzi Robinson: No redemption in workforce for felons

Dec. 04, 2010 @ 09:31 PM

I am a "felon." I spent 20 months in federal prison for attempting to buy marijuana. I finished my time and am now at a federal halfway house, a facility designed to ease the transition back into society. At the halfway house, I am required to find gainful employment and remain employed for the duration of my stay. I am currently working for $8 an hour at a local business.

Before we get too far gone that this is a step in the right direction, we should explore the prejudice and discrimination I encountered finding a job. Of all the jobs I have inquired about or applied for, roughly 75 percent have required background checks, which scan for and eliminate felons as candidates regardless of education, experience or the nature of the offense as it relates to the job. This leaves 25 percent of jobs I "qualify" to work. Most of these jobs pay roughly minimum wage.

Another factor that makes the transition more difficult is that employers must submit extra paperwork to the halfway house to prove my employment. The employer must also agree to on-site inspections of the business facility and provide continual proof of my presence. On top of this, the employer is phoned at least once daily to make sure that I am working. In a fast-paced work environment, this could be annoying or, worse, a barrier for employers hiring felons.

On the other hand, employers can receive a tax credit on the Form 8850, which provides $3,000 per year tax relief for three years. There are other tax credits for providing employment to people who haven't been working in the last 12 months. Are these concessions enough to cover the daily burdens for employers? Having been an employer in the past, I can relate to what my current employer is feeling.

We should be aware of the hardship placed on felons to rebuild their lives after prison. Let's say I work 40 hours per week at $8 an hour. My gross wages are $320, but 25 percent of this gross figure, or $80, is forfeited as a subsistence payment to the halfway house. Next, federal and state taxes amount to around 20 percent, or $64. Third, a required 10 percent of the net wages must be saved in an account and cannot be touched until release. This leaves a net of $158.40 per week for my use. Deducting travel and food expenses of about $60 per week, I am left with roughly $100 per week for all other necessities, including a vehicle and the support of my family. This leaves me wondering at what point I am actually gaining ground.

Some people may say that this treatment is what a felon deserves, but before we condemn felons, let's look at the other side. The felony stigma labels that person forever. If a person makes a mistake, there is a probability that this person has learned from his mistake, and has grown in both knowledge and wisdom. After all, the punishment was to go to prison for an allotted period. This period should not extend beyond the length of time that person served as a sentence for the crime. Ancient wisdom even says that a person who has made mistakes has experience. One who has not is dangerous.

Recidivism often happens as the result of a felon not able to become self-supportive. One's sense of self-worth is diminished by the lack of fair-paying jobs. With exclusion from virtually all employment paying a living wage, the choices for felons are not only unfair, but unreasonable considering the need to support both self and family. Turning to illicit activity for income is often a forced action.

Another point that is almost never explored is the feasibility or accuracy of the law when it comes to crime itself. Many Americans accept the laws, but never question the moral or ethical principle of the law. Our "justice" system makes money from the incarceration and prosecution of citizens, and much of this law comes as a result of past immoral or unethical decisions made by the politicos. The same group responsible for the law stands to profit from incarceration and the process of enforcing law. Why would this group concede law which subjects the public to standards which do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the population?

Our society is moving toward a zero-tolerance attitude toward people with a past. With this attitude, the road gets rougher for those who have been labeled. Has the time spent in prison not been adequate punishment for felons? I often wonder if prison is only a component of the lifelong punishment that follows. Is it fair for an employer to discriminate against any person for any reason, or without reason?

The constitution provides rights for all free citizens of the United States, and therefore to restrict the basic rights of a select group is to facilitate failure within a group. Society should look at the long-term effects of inability to support oneself, vote, or own a firearm as the encroachment into the constitutional rights of Americans. In fact, we as a nation, should make felons a protected group for EEOC classification as the result of the widespread discrimination. Open discrimination is discrimination, and felonies should only be considered in issues of direct violation of others' rights.

In looking back at our society as a whole, it can be found that America has never been a country of inclusion. Genocide, racism, economic and religious persecution, and manipulation of the law for the good of the few has always been and continues to be a part of our society. We should take time to evaluate our stance on issues of humanity and forgiveness. Being humane is not simply talk and turning one's back on issues that do not affect us -- it's action.

So I ask, at what point does redemption begin? At what point will felons stop being punished for the past?

Buzi Robinson is a former restaurant owner, attended Marshall University for graduate study, and is married with three children.

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