In 1985, Darrell Langdon of Chicago was sentenced to probation for possessing half a gram of cocaine. It was his last run-in with the law. He got his life in order and has been sober since 1988.
A happy ending? Well, despite 25 years as a law-abiding citizen, there are still people who want to punish Langdon for his crime.
Langdon learned about the vindictive nature of American criminal justice in 2010, when he applied for a job as a boiler room engineer in the Chicago public schools. Under Illinois law, sex offenders and those convicted of violent crime are barred from working in public schools.
While that sounds reasonable, the law also bars people convicted of non-violent offenses, in particular drug offenses.
Thus, Langdon, who had turned his life around after being convicted of a relatively minor offense, was told his prior conviction made him ineligible for the job.
But his story does have a happy ending: Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune wrote about Langdon’s plight, and lawyers at a legal clinic took up his case. As a result, public school officials took a “second look” at Langdon’s application, issued the necessary exemption, and hired him.
For his part, Langdon was grateful, not bitter: he told the Tribune, “I will be one of the best boiler room engineers they’ve ever had. ... They won’t regret this decision.”
While Langdon’s story turned out well, that’s not the case for many ex-offenders. In a recent New York Times op-ed, criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura wrote that millions of ex-offenders “continue to pay a price long after the crime.”
This is true even though they, like Darrell Langdon, have served their sentence and amended their lives.
The record of previous convictions, no matter how old, follows ex-offenders around like a scarlet letter. Even when there is no legal impediment, easily-obtained public records make it possible for employers to discriminate against them, no matter how minor their offense. And thanks to the “war on drugs,” the problem is only going to get worse: millions of men, disproportionately African-American and Latino, are going to be rendered unemployable.
Blumstein and Nakamura’s recommendation is one Christians should get behind: permanent bars against employment should be replaced with “rules that provide for the expiration of a criminal record.” For instance, a Massachusetts law limits “employers’ access to information about convictions to 5 years for misdemeanors and 10 years for felonies.”
Likewise, private employers should have to prove “the need for any rule” that discriminates against “someone who has remained crime-free decades after a single offense.”
This isn’t being “soft on crime” or “indifferent to public safety.” It’s acknowledging that rehabilitation is not only possible, it will be rewarded. People — like Christians — who know what it is like to be forgiven should understand.
Jim Liske is the CEO of Prison Fellowship.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: February 7, 2012