The $63 billion a year prison system, housing 2.4 million people at a time in the United States has recently begun to attract the attention of a bipartisan coalition of policymakers and advocates. Groups as diverse as the conservative Koch brothers, known for their generous spending on Republican causes, to the liberal Center for American Progress have joined forces to prompt a re-examination of the criminal justice system. Less prominent are the estimated 65 million people, like Killings, who are no longer behind bars but have criminal records and are hampered in their quest to make a livelihood after being released. Many of them say that a felony conviction of is akin to a different kind of life sentence.
Some criminal justice reform advocates argue the stigma in the workplace against those with records ultimately harms public safety, by dooming ex-offenders to a life of poverty and increasing the chances they’ll return to crime.
“An individual has to be in the right place in their walk with the conviction to want to stay out of trouble and do it legally,” said Ann Fisher, executive director of Virginia Cares, a public-private partnership that provides services to returning offenders. “The number one deterrent I would say to recidivism would be a legal, living wage. It makes a huge difference.”
At times, Killings has been able to triumph above his own record and gotten jobs through connections, back doors and a bit of luck. In the last decade, he’s worked as a cab driver, as a telemarketer, and at an insurance company—but when the opportunity ends, he’s back to square one.
Two years ago, Killings says he thought he had found some semblance of stability, working—perhaps with a touch of irony—as an employment specialist for a workforce development agency. In his 50s, he interned for several months to convince his employer to let him have the position, he said, showing up every day in a suit and tie.
But when the agency lost its federal contract, Killings found himself again where he was when he had just gotten out of prison. This time, it’s been a particularly arduous road to get on his feet again.
“I made my terrible mistake,” Killings says. “It’s something that I have to live with—the hard part is no one is really interested in the details or the particulars of the case. All I want to do is prove myself.”