The American legal system, at its fundamental core, is designed to protect U.S. citizens by penalizing inappropriate and illegal behaviors through misdemeanor and felony infractions and consequences. But another important aspect of the American justice system is the belief that any citizen can make a bad decision, and be rehabilitated back into society as a law-abiding member.
For a convicted felon who has served time, integrating back into society, finding a place to live, and obtaining an employer are arduous challenges. There is also a tendency for lawmakers and the public to view all felonies as equal, even though a felony conviction can vary from income tax evasion to assault or murder, demonstrating a varied risk level depending on the nature of the crime.
In recent years, several studies have cast doubt on the ability for felony convicted citizens to reintegrate back, retrain, and find gainful employment. The bias and prejudice that exists against convicted felons makes it difficult to seek education, job opportunities, and social supports.
Why are these obstacles important? Because convicted felons have a high probability of returning to violent or illegal crimes, if they are unable to be legitimately and gainfully employed. In this article, we will discuss some of the difficult obstacles that prior felons must confront, before reestablishing themselves as self-supporting and productive members of society.
Employers Can Fire Someone with a Felony Conviction
If an individual has been successfully charged with a felony crime, and he or she is currently employed and waiting for sentencing, an employer in most cases has the right to terminate with cause. Most employer contracts stipulate that employees have a legal obligation to maintain a clean record and background while employed. In some cases, and depending on the nature of the crime and the work responsibilities, employees who are charged (but not yet convicted) may also be released from employment, depending on the terms of the employee contract. Provisions for 'moral turpitude' can include being charged with a criminal activity.
Unlike other types of disability leaves, an employer has no legal obligation to hold a job position for an employee who must take a leave of absence to serve a prison or jail sentence. An employer in most cases is also not legally required to pay employees for court-related absences, either. Frequently, convicted felons will try to withhold their criminal record from a prospective employer, to avoid the hiring bias. However, as background checks are standard hiring practice, should the employer discover a felony charge on record, the employer can, without additional cause, fire the employee for misrepresentation.
As an unemployed individual with a criminal record, finding gainful employment can be very difficult. In the retail and food service sector, jobs are generally easier to acquire, but provide minimum wage. Security and cash handling jobs are usually not options for a convicted felon, as they may require the individual to be bonded or insurable against liability. Convicted felons generally cannot be bonded, as the insurance criteria is designed to protect the employer against monetary loss due to employee dishonesty, per a Rhode Island felony lawyer. Past felons are considered a risk by most insurance companies, as are individuals who have been on probation and parole.
The Federal Bonding Program is a new initiative in the United States – a program through the U.S. Department of Labor – which offers alternative bonding insurance specifically for prior felons or individuals with misdemeanor charges who may not otherwise qualify.
Retraining at College May Be Difficult
For individuals who have served time for a felony charge, the dream of going to college may be difficult to achieve. Part of the application process for entering on-site and online colleges, and even trade certification training, require a criminal background check that requires the disclosure of any prior convictions.
Many colleges and universities disqualify or end-list students who have a prior criminal record. While serving time in prison, individuals are not eligible to qualify for federal student loans and many educational grants, which require a clear criminal record. Any student who is convicted of a felony while attending college can have all grants and student aid (including loans) disqualified.
Denial of Social Support Services
In the United States, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is provided for families who are at or below the poverty line. The program provides nutritional assistance to millions of Americans, through partnership with the Department of Agriculture and the retail grocery community. A card is issued and provides several points that can be used at the grocery store for certain foods including dairy (milk, cheese, etc.), meat, vegetables and fruit.
Individuals charged with felonies, specifically drug-related offenses, are disqualified from receiving SNAP for a period up to two years. If subsequent felonies occur, the individual can be denied assistance from SNAP with a lifetime ban. Other offenses including trading or selling food stamps can also lead to a lifetime ban from the social program.
Felons who have successfully completed their prison sentence may qualify for Medicaid, providing affordable healthcare coverage to help get them 'back on their feet.' An estimated 650,000 Americans released from prison on an annual basis apply for Medicaid coverage. Chronic illnesses, mental health needs, infections, and addiction rates are high among post-prison felons, and the U.S. government does acknowledge that the lack of adequate and affordable healthcare may lead to a return to criminal activities for financial support. It is a priority for states and the federal government to provide access to healthcare, and prior felons can qualify for coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
By preventing and restricting employ-ability, limiting the opportunity to engage in post-secondary retraining and education, and by removing access to critical food programs for felons, it is not hard to understand why a certain percentage return to crime as a means of supporting themselves. The disdain and social prejudice that many felons face after serving their sentences is also disruptive.
Much work still needs to be done in this area to provide real programs that successfully integrate felons back into society, by providing coaching, healthcare training, and ongoing support to help them succeed and escape the cycle of crime and poverty in America.