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Pounding The Pavement As A Former Prisoner

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Kenneth Butler, 57, is one of more than 10,000 D.C. residents with a criminal record. A study by the Council for Court Excellence found that 46 percent of those with criminal records are, like Butler, unemployed.
Emily Friedman
Kenneth Butler, 57, is one of more than 10,000 D.C. residents with a criminal record. A study by the Council for Court Excellence found that 46 percent of those with criminal records are, like Butler, unemployed.

A recent report by the Council for Court Excellence found for the 10 percent of Washingtonians with a criminal record, at least 46 percent are jobless.

Kenneth Butler, 57, is one of the 60,000 District residents with a criminal record. He lives on 1st Street SE, in a double occupancy room at the East of the River Clergy and Police Community Partnership Transitional House. His room is sparsely decorated, with few belongings. Most of his adult life, he's been in prison.

"My first incarceration was back in '76," Butler says. When he was 20 years old, he and two other men robbed a jewelry store downtown. They showed a gun, and demanded money and handfuls of jewelry. At that time, Butler says, he was addicted to heroin, and wanted the money to buy drugs. The men fled the jewelry store in Butler's car, which is how the police found him just a few hours later.

"I was arrested for kidnapping and robbery," he says. "That particular day has haunted my entire life."

Butler served 3 years for the robbery. In the 37 years since that day, Butler says he's been incarcerated roughly 12 times. He'd get out, stay clean, try to get a job, and when he couldn't, he would go back to crime.

"I've been a thief, creeping, picking pockets," he says. "Jewelry, clothing, checks, credit cards, whatever. That was my means of getting my fix."

Employment may mitigate multiple incarcerations

June Kress, the Executive Director of the Council for Court Excellence, says of the 8,000 people who return annually from prison and jail, half will return within 3 years. One of the main factors influencing recidivism, Kress says, is whether or not he or she is employed.

"This is on the minds of people all over the city," says Kress. "I think it's a well-known fact in the District that a lot of this is concentrated in Wards 7 and 8. So families [are] being broken up, then broken up again. If you don't have a job, you're not spending money, you're not putting money back into the community. So the idea of these communities being lifted out of extreme poverty, it's very difficult to do."

Council member Marion Barry is pushing legislation that would allow employers to find out if someone has a criminal record only after a conditional job offer has been made. The Council for Court Excellence recommends creating a program for certificates of good standing, to prove someone is free and clear to work.

"Will somebody get hired because of a certificate of good standing? Maybe not," Kress concedes, "But at least they can get to the interview stage, which is more than people are getting now."

Kress says the city council should also enact liability protection for employers who hire people who were previously incarcerated. None of these measures will solve the whole problem, Kress says, but they might help.

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