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After the sentence: The work to restore rights of returning citizens

According to a Department of Justice study, 33% of participants released from federal prison did not find employment four years after their release.
After the sentence: The work to restore rights of returning citizens
Posted at 1:21 PM, May 15, 2023

Native Washingtonian Eric Weaver knows the city well — the good and bad.

"I was raised by my mother, single family, she had me when she was 15, you know, so just growing up and not having and just seeing people who were doing wrong," he told Scripps News.

After facing eviction as a child, he was determined to never want for things again, which led him to a life of crime.  At 17, he began his 22 years in prison for his involvement in a homicide during the city's drug war in the 1980s.

After release, Weaver says despite his best efforts at getting back on track, it was sometimes impossible because he couldn't get a job.

"We come out here with the intention to go do the right thing. We just want to get a job and be productive citizens. But it's like so many doors were getting slammed in my face when I first came home," he recalled.

It took a year to find work, a struggle that led him to a different path; this time he started a nonprofit, The National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, to help people like him.

Since his release and work in the community, he says some things have changed for returning citizens, some haven't.

"Mainly since the pandemic when a lot of places got closed, we're competing with a population of people that have an extensive resume and jobs and experience and we don't have that," he noted.

The limited job experience, combined with distrust from would-be employers often leave people like Weaver low on the list of job candidates — if they were even on the list at all.

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According to a Department of Justice study, 33% of participants released from federal prison did not find employment four years after their release. The numbers are even worse for minorities, with Blacks, Hispanics and Asians faring the worst, especially in the first few months after release.

More than 30 states have implemented Ban the Box laws, a fair hiring policy preventing potential employers from digging into a candidate's criminal background until later in the hiring process. It's designed to allow the candidate's qualifications to shine first.

In 2019, President Trump signed a similar bill — dubbed The Fair Chance Act — delaying background checks for some federal jobs.

Now, a new movement calls for  Clean Slate laws, which automatically expunge records for certain convictions. Such laws have been passed in California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Oklahoma.

But a job is just one battle. There are also barriers to things like housing, education and voting.

Sammy Perez is grassroots director with Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit started by convicted felon and former Nixon White House Counsel Chuck Colson.

"As of right now, we know that there's over 44,000 documented legal barriers to all of those things," said Perez.

The group works to give citizens a fresh start by providing education, job training and a sense of belonging on the outside, usually through work with local churches.

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It was a sense of  belonging Perez says he was missing. His father was murdered when he was a child, and his mother gave up her maternal rights a few years later. He had his first run-in with the law at 8 years old — the first of many.

"I didn't have a plan, I didn't have my faith. And I didn't have support. So I found myself actually arrested again, this time as an adult," he recalled.

At 27 years old he was released from prison and able to find housing through a local church, a gesture that he says led to employment and eventually college.

"Healing is important and needs to take place in order for individuals to be able to flourish and reach their full potential. So, you know, the church, and people within the church were instrumental in that for me," Perez said.

Belonging is important, especially in a journey that often requires leaving behind people from the past.

"One of the things that I really tell people is like, we are adults and a lot of us went in when we were kids. And so to come out and say 'I'm going back around the neighborhood to see what's going on' and hanging out, that's not grown. That's not adult behavior," Weaver stated.

Weaver and Perez are now advocates for their fellow citizens, working within their local governments to change laws and working with returning citizens to change minds.

"Being able to offer that voice at the table, I really count as a privilege," Perez said.

"My ultimate goal is to get rid of the word 'returning' citizen, and just be a citizen. Like we just want to be acclimated back into society and just be a normal citizen and get afforded all the opportunities that a normal citizen gets," said Weaver.

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