Shari L. Thomas Has Been Out of Prison for Nearly 20 Years, but It’s Hard to Find a Job because Employers Still See Her as a Convict

© Shari Thomas, 50, lost her job in the pharmaceutical industry and is now on foodstamps.
© Shari Thomas, 50, lost her job in the pharmaceutical industry and is now on foodstamps.

Shari L. Thomas went to prison more than 25 years ago for killing the man who she said had abused her as a child. She used her time there to remake herself, becoming the first woman in Virginia to obtain a college degree behind bars. She earned a master’s degree in biotechnology after her release. She has kept her record clean since, managing research laboratories for major hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

And yet even now, her criminal record has the power to reach through time, upending her life.

In the past few years, perhaps because of the nation’s abiding fear of crime, its litigiousness, or the Internet’s ease at churning up background information that may not have surfaced before, Thomas has been rejected or terminated from several high-paying jobs.

She had been making $150,000 six years ago. Now she is on food stamps. Sheetz, Wal-Mart and other retailers have turned her down for jobs. She could lose her Cecil County, Md., home.

“I came home and got my master’s degree,” said Thomas, 50. “I’d been working 18 years with no problem. When is enough enough?”

Thomas is not the only ex-convict asking for a second chance. But because she was a violent offender, her path to acceptance is hardest, even as Americans reconsider long-standing views of crime and punishment.

More than 600,000 former inmates return to their communities each year. About half of them wind up back in prison. Their convictions, even minor ones, often prevent them from finding jobs, in many cases resulting in their return to crime.

But Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said that he feels that the moment has arrived when concerns about the nation’s disproportionately large and costly prison population have shifted people’s views toward rehabilitating felons.

“We’re at a potentially transformative moment in American history,” Brooks said.

To break the cycle, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other organizations have been pushing “Ban the Box” legislation that would prohibit employers, during preliminary screening, from disqualifying job seekers on the basis of a criminal record. Fourteen states and the District have signed on to such policies, as have 100 cities and counties, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In Virginia, a bill that would have forbidden state agencies from inquiring about criminal background records until after a job offer passed the Senate but died in the House. This month, Maryland’s legislature unanimously passed the Maryland Second Chance Act, allowing people to petition a court to seal records of certain nonviolent offenses.

But there is resistance among many employers.

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Source: The Washington Post | Fredrick Kunkle

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