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As Returning Citizens Reenter the Workforce, Will Their Past Be Held Against Them?

After Prison, More Punishment

Tracy Jan - September 3, 2019

He had spent 17 of his 46 years behind bars, locked in a pattern of addiction and crime that led to 16 prison terms. Now, Meko Lincoln pushed a cart of cleaning supplies at the reentry house to which he had been paroled in December, determined to provide for his grandchildren in a way he failed to do as a father.

“Keep on movin’, don’t stop,” Lincoln sang, grooving to the British R&B group Soul II Soul on his headphones as he emptied trash cans and scrubbed toilets at Amos House. He passed a bulletin board plastered with hiring notices — a line cook, a warehouse worker, a landscaper — all good jobs for someone with a felony record, but not enough for him.

Lincoln, who is training to be a drug and alcohol counselor, wants those lost years to count for something more.

“I lived it,” he said. “I understand it. My past is not a liability. It’s an asset. I can help another person save their life.”

Yet because regulations in Rhode Island and most other states exclude people with criminal backgrounds from many jobs, Lincoln’s record, which includes sentences for robbery and assault, may well be held against him.

Across the country, more than 10,000 regulations restrict people with criminal records from obtaining occupational licenses, according to a database developed by the American Bar Association. The restrictions are defended as a way to protect the public. But Lincoln and others point out that the rules are often arbitrary and ambiguous.

Licensing boards in Rhode Island can withhold licenses for crimes committed decades ago, by citing a requirement that people display “good moral character,” without taking into account individual circumstances or efforts toward rehabilitation.

Such restrictions make it challenging for the formerly incarcerated to enter or move up in fast-growing industries such as health care, human services and some mechanical trades, according to civil liberties lawyers and economists. These include the very jobs they’ve trained for in prison or in reentry programs like Lincoln’s. And without jobs, many of those released could end up back in jail, experts say.

Lincoln’s hope of getting licensed as a chemical dependency clinician will be a vivid test of how much the system is willing to forgive.

His 16 prison terms resulted from charges including narcotics possession, resisting arrest, obtaining money under false pretense, malicious destruction of property and assaulting police as well as repeated parole violations for returning to drugs, according to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Lincoln said his crimes were committed while he was intoxicated or high, or trying to obtain heroin and crack cocaine. He would buy drugs, dilute them and resell them to other people with addictions, actions that resulted in robbery charges. He sold fake drugs to undercover police and hit a drug dealer’s car with a crowbar.

Licensing restrictions are among the many obstacles to establishing a stable economic footing after prison.

Incarceration carries a stigma, and many employers are leery of hiring people who have spent time in prison.

But states with the strictest licensing barriers tend to have higher rates of recidivism, according to research by Stephen Slivinski, an economist at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University.

“In many states, a criminal record is a stain that you can’t wash off,” Slivinski said. “There is no amount of studying that can take away this mark in your past if a licensing board wants to use it against you.”

Even Rhode Island, a state on the forefront of sentencing reform, has some of the nation’s most restrictive licensing regulations, according to separate analyses by the liberal National Employment Law Project and the libertarian Institute for Justice.

For Lincoln, obtaining a license could mean the difference between the $25,000-a-year job as a “peer recovery coach” he’s being trained for at his reentry program at Amos House and the $50,000 he could earn a year as a chemical dependency clinician — a licensed drug and alcohol counselor who can treat people with addictions, not just mentor them.

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