The Color of Money: Giving ex-offenders the chance to work

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary is working with two former inmates of Maryland Correctional Institution for Women to help them find a path to financial security and prosperity.
By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 11:47 PM

Shawn Dunning has been getting his hair cut every three weeks at a Hair Cuttery salon in the District of Columbia for years.

He loves his stylist, typically giving her a $5 tip after paying $18 for his cut. But Dunning - like so many other people who reached out to me - no longer wants to patronize the company, to make a statement about the recent firing of Kelly D. Brown.

Hair Cuttery, a division of the Vienna, Va.-based Ratner Companies, has a blanket policy of not hiring ex-offenders, especially those with felony convictions. But despite that policy, Brown, who was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and served six years of an eight-year sentence, was hired last March.

At the time of her hiring, Brown, 32, was upfront about the circumstances surrounding her conviction with both the salon manager and a company recruiter. She worked for the salon in Baltimore for seven months and was dismissed only after she asked permission to be photographed for a profile I wrote for The Washington Post. It was the last part in a series I began earlier this year in which I looked at the difficulties ex-offenders have managing their personal finances.

In a statement last week about the firing, a spokesperson for Ratner said: "Kelly Brown did indicate on her application that she had been convicted of a crime; and yes, she explained her circumstances to the salon leader. Unfortunately for all involved, this information was not communicated to our Human Resources department; had it been, the application would have been denied.

"Our company does not begrudge any person's attempt to make a positive transition in his or her life, but we have an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of our stylists and our clients."

Dunning sent the company e-mails, which he shared with me.

"What I find troubling about this is that the people that hired her - presumably the ones in the best position to make a judgment call like this - must not have been concerned about this threat," Dunning wrote. "While I support your company's concern for safety, I find it hard to believe that the decision to fire Kelly Brown was based on any real threat. Does your company believe that people can change? Do you always judge people for actions of the past, regardless of potential for present and future behavior?"

The company did not respond to my requests to specify whether it had received complaints from customers such as Dunning. It did reiterate Ratner's hiring standards.

The outpouring of support for Brown has been overwhelming. I've received notes from the parents of ex-offenders distraught that, having served their time and staying out of trouble, their adult children also can't find work. Ex-offenders wrote begging for help in changing policies at other companies that keep them from working.

E-mails from Hair Cuttery customers also poured in criticizing the chain for its policy. Many people recognized what advocates for ex-offenders have stressed for years. With about 730,000 people nationwide released from prison each year, there is a crisis for the formerly incarcerated who can't find jobs, even low-wage and low-skill jobs, because so many employers have blanket bans on hiring ex-offenders.

"I experience what you are highlighting in the case of Kelly Brown all day, everyday," said Tony Lewis, a job developer for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia. "People want to work and they can't, and it's really frustrating. What are they supposed to do? Never work again?"

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