Charlottesville City Schools wanted the Virginia General Assembly to allow it to employ people who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
It’s a decision that could help the community and people who were formerly incarcerated, locals who work in reentry programs have said. But, no lawmakers are willing to take it on.
As Charlottesville’s House of Delegates representative, Democrat Sally Hudson was the most likely official to carry such legislation. But she won’t.
“The current House GOP leadership does not support that kind of legislation,” Hudson said. “The biggest bottleneck is removing barrier crimes for staffing of all kinds, including schools.”
The Virginia Republican Party could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Current law bans anyone with what the state classifies as a barrier crime from working at a school. There are more than 150 barrier crimes, many of which involve abuse or neglect of some kind. These crimes can be either felonies or misdemeanors.
City School’s proposed legislation would change that law to allow people with “specific non-violent felony records” to be hired for open positions in the school system.
“With an eye always on student safety, these changes could broaden the application pool for positions such as custodian or school bus driver,” the school division’s short proposal read.
More about school staffing issues
The proposal did not specify which non-violent felonies it would consider, or what positions people with these records would be considered for.
It was one of six legislative priorities proposed by the school board last October, the majority of which were aimed at addressing the school system’s ongoing staffing issues that have sourced back to before the pandemic. The most glaring shortage continues to involve school bus drivers.
As of November, the Charlottesville Area Transit had 10 school bus drivers. It needs 40 to be fully staffed. City Schools did not have any more recent numbers, a spokesperson said. Charlottesville Tomorrow reached out to CAT, which hires school bus drivers, for an updated number but did not get a response in time for publication.
The division is also short one custodian, nearly 30 teachers, assistants and substitutes, and a handful of other positions.
“I think as a School Board, some of us started to talk a little bit and saw that there are some advantages to opening our employment opportunities to everyone,” said Dom Morse, a Charlottesville School Board member.
Those advantages are not just staffing, say local folks who work with the formerly incarcerated. It could also help the people convicted of crimes.
Herb Dickerson knows the hurdles one must go through after being incarcerated. When he was released years ago, his job applications were continuously denied.
Those rejections don’t just make it difficult to support oneself, he said. They make it more likely a person will commit more crime.
“If you remove [formerly incarcerated] from opportunity, you run the risk of making the community less safe,” said Ross Carew, executive director of the Jefferson Area Offender Aid and Restoration Community Corrections.
The smallest setback could send someone back into old habits, Dickerson said. It happened to him numerous times, he said. Dickerson’s criminal record is peppered with drug-related convictions and prison sentences.
Dickerson wasn’t the only person in his community to feel this way. He knew he had to take action if he wanted to see change within himself and those around him. He, alongside other ex-offenders, created B.U.C.K. Squad, or Brothers United to Cease the Killing, in Charlottesville. The group’s main goal is to stop shootings, but it also employs people with criminal pasts who might otherwise struggle to find work.
“We decided, we’re going to do something for ourselves,” said Dickerson. “We don’t need people, we can create jobs for ourselves.”
There are many industries that bar people with past convictions from working besides public school systems. And the worse the conviction, the harder it is for formerly incarcerated people to get positions, said Ann Fisher, executive director for Virginia Community Action ReEntry Systems (or CARES). At best, an ex-offender can move up the ranks at certain companies, like becoming a manager at a store or restaurant. But Fisher said even those scenarios are few and far between.
Virginia code is tight with where people with barrier crimes can work. There are multiple career fields that state law prohibits people who commit such crimes from entering, such as real estate, commercial transportation, or working in a pharmacy or hospice organization. The list notably bars those with barrier convictions from getting jobs that involve people with disabilities, elderly people and children.
Garnering community support for breaking down those barriers might be tricky, said the reentry workers who spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow — especially at schools. Some people are unsure about having ex-offenders work within proximity of their children, said Fisher. The hesitation isn’t new, she added. She’s seen similar doubts for all kinds of programs that aim to help people who have been incarcerated.
“We can talk all day long about the value of public safety and financial benefits that will be brought to a community if you give people a chance as they get re-established as law-abiding citizens,” said Fisher. “But in the end, we’re arguing for somebody who has been incarcerated.”
To have any chance of putting the community members’ fears to bed, the school system must detail its plan, said Fisher and Carew. Instead of simply saying it will hire “nonviolent offenders,” officials should be specific and list out what kind of offenses such a person can have in order to work for the school system. Examples could be someone who was caught with cocaine or someone who stole another person’s credit card.
That said, not all people with violent convictions should necessarily be barred from applying for positions within the school system, said Carew.
There are people who cannot escape a mistake, even if it happened decades ago and they have worked tirelessly since to prove that they are not that person, Carew said. She believes those people with violent convictions who have had clean records since should be reconsidered.
But none of this is likely to happen anytime soon. No state legislators will carry a bill this year to alter the state’s barrier crimes for schools.
City Schools has not decided if it will pursue similar legislation next year.
Editor’s note: We have changed the headline and body of this story to refer to people with criminal convictions who have served prison sentences as “formerly incarcerated people.” A previous version of this story referred to these people as “returning citizens.” However, a reader pointed out that this term could be confusing and so we deferred to more clear language.