Branded for life: Felons struggle to find work - KCTV5 News

Branded for life: Felons struggle to find work

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A felony conviction in Missouri stays on someone’s record for life, making it difficult to find a job. (KCTV5) A felony conviction in Missouri stays on someone’s record for life, making it difficult to find a job. (KCTV5)

Phyllis Henderson made a mistake 28 years ago. It has been haunting her for decades.

In 1988, she and a friend stole a VCR.

“I didn’t think that I was going to have this hard of a time in life over a VCR,” Henderson said, shaking her head.

Henderson took a plea deal and served 90 days in jail, but the deal came with a price. She would have a felony conviction on her record for the rest of her life.

“I’m supposed to carry some sign around that says, 'Watch her. She’s going to do this, that or the other,'” said Henderson.

The Kansas City resident joins an estimated 20 million Americans who have felony convictions. Finding housing and work can be a frustrating and daunting task. A prior felony often takes you out of the running immediately.

“I hate that box,” says Henderson. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony? That’s the worst application in the world.”

Like millions of others, Henderson is branded for life. She’s forced to mark the box every time she applies for a job.

Twenty-one states have passed laws breaking down those barriers. Most are on the state level, allowing felons to be considered for jobs, rather than disqualifying them immediately. Other states have even removed the box completely from all job applications. Most of Kansas and all of Missouri still keep the felony box on applications.

In 2014, Wyandotte County Unified Government unanimously passed removing the box from city and county job applications. Background checks are still performed, but felons are not automatically rejected based on their prior conviction. However, felons can’t apply for public safety or municipal court jobs.

In Kansas, felons can petition for a crime to be expunged from their record, as long as it’s not a murder, sex assault or a crime against a child. In Missouri, there are no options.

“The word felon is the worst one of the bad ‘f’ words,” joked Shawn Igou while breaking down mattresses at Kansas City’s Avenue of Life. “No one wants to hire you.”

The organization is one of the few places that gives felons a second chance.

Joe Lockridge applied for 25 jobs before he was hired to help recycle mattresses at Avenue of Life.

“I can’t change what I did,” he says. “But I can change who I am today and that’s where I am at today.

The organization, Beyond the Conviction: Building Brighter Futures also helps those with felony convictions learn new skills and find employment. City Union Mission is another organization that offers job counseling for felons.

Henderson hopes one day the stigma will change and nonviolent felons will be given a second chance.

“I just want to breathe,” she says. “And for people to look at me as a person and not a felon with a label on me.”

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