Ex-offenders face many legal barriers

WINCHESTER – Once a criminal, always a criminal or so it may seem for many who serve prison sentences and find their pasts continuing to haunt them long after they have served their time.

Joshua Cagney, a speaker at a conference Wednesday on recidivism, is better equipped than most ex-offenders to cope with life after prison. He has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University with a double major in economics and business law and a master’s degree in psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

But, Cagney told the audience, he continues to struggle to find his way after serving more than seven years in prison on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. State laws banning ex-offenders from obtaining licenses and certificates necessary for work in certain fields have blocked his hopes of working as a therapist with troubled juveniles and adult alcoholics and drug addicts.

Laws that effectively ban ex-offenders from certain occupations, regardless of their qualifications and the steps they have taken to rehabilitate themselves, ensure that they continue to pay a penalty for their crimes long after prison. A legal restriction on how someone may make a living only adds to the burden a criminal record places on a job-seeker trying to leave his past behind, Cagney said.

“There’s no longer any pragmatism in the criminal justice system or the judicial process,” Cagney said.

Cagney, 42, of Purcellville, was part of a panel that also included Erin Kreeger, public policy manager of Koch Industries, Burke Brownfeld, a member of the Board of Directors of Offender Aide and Restoration in Arlington, and Devon Simmons, the re-entry coordinator in the Virginia Attorney General’s office.

Kreeger said Koch Industries recently removed a question on its job application forms that inquired about a person’s criminal record. Koch’s elimination of a criminal history check off for job seekers is part of the so-called “ban the box” movement that also includes Virginia’s state government.

David and Charles Koch, the main owners of Koch Industries, are best known outside their company as conservative activists, but Kreeger said they have found common ground with liberals in advocating for criminal justice reforms, including an easing of occupational licensing restrictions like those that thwarted Cagney’s career ambitions.

Kreeger said the company has always waited to conduct a criminal background check of a job applicant until a conditional offer of employment is made, adding that she has anecdotal information of felons who passed the hiring process, although the exact number is uncertain.

“That information has no bearing on how we operate our business,” Kreeger said of individual criminal records. “We just want hard working people who are skilled and qualified to contribute to our corporate community and help us innovate and grow our business.”

Brownfeld cited onerous financial burdens facing newly released prisoners as a major obstacle to building new lives. Court costs, fines, restitution orders and child support payments make it hard for someone to survive if he can’t find a job or works at one that pays no more than minimum wage.

Brownfeld, a former police officer, said he was well aware of career criminals with little or no interest in changing their lives. Such people deserve to remain locked up or closely watched after their release, but the majority of ex-offenders sincerely want to go straight but find social and legal barriers too much to overcome, Brownfeld said.

Brownfeld said a study a few years ago on the number of roadblocks facing ex-offenders trying to re-enter society ranked Virginia 48th of 50 states.

“Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” Brownfeld said. “That’s the way we’ve viewed criminal justice for a long time as a nation. A very punitive system. We’re the most punitive system in the world actually, per capita.

“On it’s face, I’m not saying I disagree with that. I disagree with it because the data tell us it’s not effective.”

Cagney, who is a recovering alcoholic, explained that his conviction for involuntary manslaughter stemmed from a traffic accident in which he struck a car carrying five people, including one man, a husband and father, who died in the crash. Cagney was drunk at the time.

With the path toward working as a counselor blocked by state law, Cagney said he is being forced to “reinvent” himself again.

“I do want to effect some change,” he said. “I do want to contribute to a society that I took from for a very long time. What that looks like, I don’t know.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com