What is a Felony?
We need to establish what the term means in the eyes of the criminal justice system before exploring some of the degree options. Most courts define a felony as a criminal offense that results in a prison term of one year or more, and these range from relatively minor offenses to first-degree murder. Each state assigns its classification of felonies based on a numerical or letter designation.
Theft, for example, is illegal in every state, but each state sets its dollar-value threshold for distinguishing between misdemeanor theft and felony theft. Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey join Florida at the lowest ($300) threshold before crossing into felony territory. In Florida, you might go to prison for a $300 theft, but it takes $2,500 of stolen goods to end up in jail in Texas or Wisconsin. In Georgia, the $300 stolen item might result in a fine or short jail time.
Consequently, the Florida Retail Federation is not pleased with the low threshold as criminals are aware of the number and steal accordingly. The National Retail Federation reported that retailers lose about $30 billion in the United States annually due to store thefts.
In the criminals’ favor is the fact that prisons are overcrowded enough without increasing the burden by incarcerating people for minor crimes. The overpopulated prison population is why some states keep adjusting the threshold upward.
The United States has more prisoners per capita than any other country. The U.S. prison population peaked at approximately 2.3 million in 2008 and dropped to 1.8 million by mid-2020. One reason for the decrease is the early release of minor offenders because of the risk of higher infection rates from COVID-19. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 also contributed to the decline as the public pressured the legal system for change.
Unfortunately, the early release doesn’t mean fewer crimes in all areas, as these statistics prove:
As the numbers show, reported rapes, sexual assaults, and robberies decreased from 2019 to 2020. At the same time, reported violent crimes, murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault increased. Notably, reported forcible rapes jumped considerably from 2012 (85,141) to 2018 (143,765). On a positive note, violent crime in the United States has dropped substantially since the apex of 1991 (758.2 violent offenses per 100,000 people) to the most recent data of 2020 (398.5 per 100k). Therefore, despite the population growth, the country is safer today than in the early 1990s.
What is a Misdemeanor?
A misdemeanor is a less severe offense than a felony, and they too have classifications. There are federal sentencing guidelines; however, each state has a set of classes or levels for misdemeanors with a different punishment for each. Maine, for example, omits the terms felony and misdemeanor from its statutes; instead, it has a lettering system A through E, with A being the most serious. These federal guidelines apply to an offense that violates federal law, are as follows:
- Class A Misdemeanor: One year or less in jail, but not more than six months and/or $100,000 fine.
- Class B: Six months or less, but more than thirty days and/or a $5,000 fine.
- Class C: Thirty days or less, but more than five days and/or a $5,000 fine.
Typically, you are placed in county jail.
Now that we’ve established that crime has created almost two million prisoners – what are the job possibilities and education opportunities for those released and/or on parole?
Recent statistics on inmate educational levels are sparse; however, the Bureau of Justice reported in 2003 that roughly 40% of prisoners in state and 26,5% in federal prisons had not completed high school. Those with eighth grade or less were 14.2% (state) and 12% (federal). These figures illustrate that long before addressing the best college degree, earning a high school diploma or GED is the top priority.
Educating the incarcerated is controversial as the cost per inmate in Maryland, for example, is $37,000! This state government spends about $12,000 per pre-K student per year. A 2016 report released by the Department of Education showed that from 1979 to 2013, state and local funding for prison education increased three times that of pre-K public education. Hence the wrangling.
The argument in favor of prison education comes from the Rand Review that reported in January 2016 the merits. It concluded that inmates who participate in any education program behind bars have a 43% lower chance of returning to crime. Conversely, 40% rejoin the corrections system within three years who have not improved their life skills. Still, state and federal governments debate the value of educational spending versus return on investment.
The crime statistics and related data above might seem superfluous; nonetheless, they are necessary to understand the big picture regarding inmate population and the educational level. Educational instruction is crucial for prisoners because every dollar spent on it saves taxpayers four to five dollars spent on corrections. Reduced recidivism could save the U.S. economy about $60 billion per year.
Convicted felons are free to pursue any degree they wish; however, they may be limited in finding work in some particular fields more than others. For example, handling large sums of money for a financial institution such as a bank may not be an option for someone with a prior conviction on their record. Additionally, more employers require a criminal background check with the internet teeming with companies specializing in this service. One site charges $29.95 for an instant criminal check if you have the individual’s social security number, such as a spouse, partner, or fiance.
It depends on what exactly your charge is. A sexual or violent crime offender will not likely find work in education, especially minors. Period. You would probably waste your time as schools and some colleges have strict hiring processes. A post-secondary college or university may consider you if it has been over ten years since the incident (and perhaps if it was a minor conviction) – and you have all other qualifications (such as Ph.D. or prior teaching experience).
Although some go undetected, public schools in the United States now require school boards to perform background checks on new hires. A Pittsburgh news investigator discovered that some of the 135 teachers screened had prior records for possession of heroin and embezzlement.
A law passed in 2015: the very Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) banned the aiding and abetting of a school employee that leaves one school district or state. The crime or incident must follow the perpetrator.
Approximately 500 teachers are arrested each year for sexual misconduct with a student.
Even a DUI or DWI (driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated), a much lesser offense than a felony, can stay with the offender for up to 10 years. However, this varies by state. In Texas, a DWI remains on your driving record permanently unless it is expunged or sealed. Your record (Texas) can be erased if you were never convicted or you pleaded to a lesser offense, like reckless driving. A job that entails driving a company or commercial vehicle will not be an option. However, some commercial vehicle jobs don’t require a college education – most may prefer a high school education.
Do not despair; you D.O. have some options – after obtaining a high school diploma or GED. If so, one path is pursuing an associate’s degree in a technology area, except for healthcare. Hospitals and medical facilities tend to conduct background checks. The benefit of this degree is you can complete it in two years or less at considerably less cost than a four-year program.
Regardless of where you start your post-secondary education, you need to assess your interests and strengths. Don’t choose a discipline you struggle with in high school, such as mathematics or the sciences. Land surveying, for example, may sound like a great job – working outdoors using sophisticated equipment. But, an associate or bachelor’s degree in this field usually requires algebra and trigonometry.
Felons with an aptitude for computers may seek a degree in computer science or computer programming. Career options are web and software development, database management, cybersecurity, and information technology. And there are numerous online schools to earn an associate or undergraduate degree; for example, Southern New Hampshire University has an Associate of Science in Computer Science. You can find other schools offering associate degrees at computerscience.org.
Graphic design might interest felons with an artistic flair adept at using computer graphic software. Some of the jobs include web design, visual marketing, packaging design, advertising design, and more.
Can I work as a paralegal with a prior felony or misdemeanor? Probably not if you have a felony because taking online classes from an American Bar Association accredited school –may do a background check. Other hurdles arise applying for internships and paralegal certification, and law offices in metropolitan areas will likely exclude a felon’s employment application. Your chances are better if you’ve had a misdemeanor that has been expunged or pardoned.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has many federal laws pertaining to discrimination; however, employers asking about your criminal record is not one of them. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII states that if employers use criminal information to decide to hire, they may be violating this amendment. Inclusion of the word “may” is key, as the employer cannot use criminal history if it also discriminates based on color, national origin, sex, or religion. In other words, a white ex-felon and a Hispanic ex-felon with the same criminal record apply for the same job; the employer cannot use the past against the Hispanic but not the white candidate.
State laws differ regarding employers’ rights to ask about felony records. California passed a Ban-the-Box Law in 2018 that prohibits companies with five or more employees from having an application box referring to criminal arrests or convictions. There are exceptions. Felons with prior convictions for drugs or violence may not work with children. (That eliminates many degrees in education and counseling).
California law also prohibits felons with records for dishonesty, burglary, or breach of trust from working with financial institutions. Therefore, you may want to remove a finance or accounting degree from the list. The caveat in this law is that employers can still legally conduct a background check after making a job offer, and the company can then rescind the offer. An employer can only consider offenses that resulted in a conviction.
Currently, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have ban-the-box laws. Check your state of employment for current laws.
What about No Degree?
There are many job opportunities in the trades, such as automotive repair, electrician, plumber, carpenter, and more.
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Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2020 may provide direction for a degree in areas where job prospects are more favorable. The only projected decline is in the category of a computer programmer, and the job change represents turnover covering the ten years through 2030. Therefore, according to the BLS, there could be 34,100 welding positions over ten years or about 3,410 each year.
Resources for ex-cons
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an excellent place to start inquiring about financial aid to help fund your college degree program. They are a government program responsible for managing the student assistance program under the Higher Education Act of 1965. This program offers grants, work-study options, and loans for those attending a college or technical career school in the U.S.
Help for Felons assists ex-offenders and felons find employment opportunities after prison, including a state directory of available services covering housing, addiction, and health services.
Career One Stop is a short-term training program for ex-felons with state links for resources.
Sapling recaps various services available to ex-convicts, like financial help, federal programs, charities, state agencies, education, re-entry programs, and technology training.
The United States Department of Labor sponsors the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC); this is something you would want to check in about. It is an incentive program that targets individuals who face obstacles to employment, including ex-felons.
Felony Friendly Jobs helps former offenders find meaningful employment by offering planning, job categories, a directory of companies hiring ex-felons, and resume coaching.
S.C. Works is another job site worth investigating for ex-offenders.
For Further Reading: