I read a story in the paper today about Jeff Landry, the Louisiana AG, hiring a convicted felon, Quendi Baloney, to work in his office. Despite the usual cringe I feel when I see his name, the news story itself really got me thinking. I’ll make no bones about it, I strongly dislike Landry’s politics. I see him as carrying on the same legacy of poor policies and practices as our last AG Buddy Caldwell. Veritably ignoring the legitimate responsibilities of the Attorney General’s Office, Landry continues to misspend prodigious amounts of tax money on cyber crime entrapment and extortion schemes. Instead of tracking down and arresting the people actually producing CP and rescuing these abused children, the AG office distributes online porn bait to create new criminals in our communities. This makes their “cybercrime unit” look bad-ass on paper. Appealing to traditional ultra-conservative peers and constituents is a well known super-objective for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. So why did Landry do something as socially progressive as employing a felon?
While the hiring of an ex-felon sets an excellent positive example in our state, Landry’s
action was not altruistically motivated. In truth, the ex-felon he hired happened to be the daughter of another politician who’s endorsement he badly needed. (Did someone say “conflict of interest?”) Landry actually broke the policies of his own office, part of our legal branch of government, when he hired Baloney. He didn’t fight to change the agency policy barring felons from employment. He didn’t pave the way for more qualified people with criminal histories to find job within his office. He simply chose to ignore the rule creating a barrier between himself and a self-serving scheme.
Yet despite the dust being kicked up over the usual corrupt practices in our government, there is a silver lining. An ex-offender is gainfully employed. While her position may only last as long as Landry’s tenure, her future prospects are much improved. The public is witnessing an elected official giving a great job to a felon. While the story eventually reveals this gesture to be highly suspect, the headline does contain the words, “Jeff Landry hired..” and “looking past her criminal record.”
Hey, I count progress in pennies.
My feelings about Landry aside, hiring former offenders is a good thing. The more resilient of the people who have navigated the devastating consequences of a criminal conviction often develop characteristics very desirable in a employee. As Quendi Baloney says, “(My past has made me) a stronger, harder working ethical adult with much more to share with my family, my employer and our community as a whole.” And you know what? I believe her. My personal experience has created a positive bias in this direction. I believe the under and unemployed ex-offender class has great potential to become an asset to our society. Your worth, knowledge, talents and experience are not erased with a conviction. Nor is a person’s ability to learn skills diminished.
I work part-time for a prison reentry program. I know first hand how important community reintegration is for felons. (For both the incarcerated and those disenfranchised by probation) Among other things, statistics draw clear lines of cause and effect between steady employment and reduced recidivism/increased quality of life. We also know an offender’s connection to the community, the strength of their family bonds and their access to support and assistance programs are true game changers in the prevention of reoffending. As an advocate for the previously incarcerated, I’m a big supporter of employer incentives, protective statutes, nonprofit services and public awareness campaigns that increase employment opportunities for this class. The politics behind the story I read today are shady, but if I squint my eyes this article appears as evidence of society’s willingness to incorporate people with a criminal history. I cheer when this cause is promoted, even if it’s a vicarious endorsement.
Though America has a very far way to go, I’ve seen advancements in many areas of this issue lately. Employers who hire ex-felons can get free protective bonds from the government. (Reducing the potential employer’s fear of suffering financial damage if the “ex-con” reoffends on the job) There is now an unprecedented amount of resources for reentry programming coming from the Federal government. Private foundations are making reentry grants a priority. Social concern for the previously incarcerated is the cause de rigueur. Public perceptions are changing and people with records are slowly moving toward employment. As a person with a felony conviction myself, one would assume this makes me feel pretty confident about my future. But I’m not. None of this progress applies to me.
Registered citizens are conspicuously left out of this entire equation. While I celebrate what the new state law, “Ban the Box” could potentially do for many of my clients, I am also struggling to accept the other laws passed to increase employment restrictions on registered “sex offenders.” As I secure educational grants to provide IT job training programs for prisoners I also deal with the fallout from a new notification law for RSOs that jeopardizes the security and confidentially of my own internet accounts. My agency helps ex-offenders secure access to resources like public housing, food stamps and tuition assistance but as a registered citizen I am forever banned from these benefits. This exclusion isn’t just the result of public prejudice, it’s a statutorily mandated segregation of those with sex related convictions from the rest of the population.
I think it’s scary, no, terrifying, how low-risk registered people (who make up the majority of the SOR) are being divided from the ex-offender class in addition to being quarantined from the general public. Adding insult to injury, the vitriol directed at the registered and the socially acceptable subjugation and disenfranchisement we suffer is based on a massive and abominable body of misinformation, manipulative propaganda and damaging myths.
Every person found guilty of any one of the myriad of “sex crimes” (the absurd variety of offenses under the umbrella are staggering) on the books is labeled (branded, marked) a “sex offender.” This label is a public declaration that fuels the perceptions of society that as a sex offender is highly dangerous and consequently unemployable. “The danger that the individual is perceived to pose is especially focused on being a danger to children. Reoffending seems to be assumed.”* (Citation below) The blanket sex offender label has relegated over 850,000 Americans to thrash heap. They are the unforgivable and the unredeemable. They have no value. Worse than criminal, the registered are understood to be immoral, compulsively deviant and dangerous. The policies of our government reinforce these myths as fact.
The average American believes the registered are the “enemy within” because the government tells them so. Why does the construction of more and more laws to restrict sex offenders continue? Why did the US institute the most massive civilian surveillance program (SORNA) the public has ever seen? Why the whole-sale violation of constitutional rights for almost one million citizens? How can any of this be happening unless the fears over sex offenders are based 100% on facts? The average American can’t be blamed for drawing this conclusion. Traditional offenders are released back into society, allowed to start their life again. This makes them candidates for the more socially conscious of potential employers. But even the boss with a heart of gold buys the negative hype about sex offenders. Is it any wonder no one is hiring any sex offenders in the want ads today?
The REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER is currently the most reviled of Americans. Perhaps, DOMESTIC TERRORIST would trump the registered label, though this may be arguable as well. Look at the true life tales told in media and the dramas played out in our popular entertainment. A traditional ex-offender may find himself playing the hero in a feel good story, à la Shawshank Redemption or the comeback of Michael Vick. No way in hell a sex offender will be cast in those roles. True story or fiction, society has no desire to connect to the humanity of a sex offender. People don’t want to hear about a sex offender finding success or happiness. Sex offenders don’t deserve joy or freedom much less a job. The disparaging difference in the perception of a felon and the felony sex offender is unfair but it is a reality. The plight of the registered is a narrative with little in common to that of the traditional felon. The evidence of their progress and the gains they achieve are not ours.
So, while I congratulate Quendi Baloney on securing a $50,000+ job with the Attorney General’s Office in fraud control despite having 11 felony counts of credit card fraud and theft on her record…..I also feel feel slightly jealous, and very much left out. There is indeed a tale of two felons in America. For everyone’s sake I hope traditional felons continue to make strides and will enjoy a brighter future. For my own sake, I just daydream of a social advancement from sex offender gang to the regular felon club.
No offense to my low risk registered brothers and sisters out there but I’d trade your company for that of the drug dealers, thieves and violent thugs any day. Im not saying these guys are better than you. On the contrary, low risk offenders represent a fairly stand-up group of folks. Most of the registered only offended once. Outside of this offense they lived law abiding lives. Most of them had no criminal intent. And all of the registered participated in therapies to help accept responsibility for their crimes and gain empathy for victims. Traditional felons rarely do this. The precarious access to the limited freedoms a sex offender does is contingent on their remorse, by sincerely convincing everyone they would never offend again. If you meet one of us, you know how much we regret our actions. This isn’t true of a traditional felon outside of a parole hearing. Yep, the regular felon is a suspect group, one must accept incorporate them into their life with caution. But, oh how I envy them. Lord, I want to be in that number. Please let me wake up and be a plain old felon!!
*Incarcerated Sex Offenders’ Expectations for Reentry
Richard Tewksbury and Heith Copes