Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the status of a bill in Maryland’s legislature. This version has been corrected.
Shari L. Thomas went to prison more than 25 years ago for killing the man who she said had abused her as a child. She used her time there to remake herself, becoming the first woman in Virginia to obtain a college degree behind bars. She earned a master’s degree in biotechnology after her release. She has kept her record clean since, managing research laboratories for major hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
And yet even now, her criminal record has the power to reach through time, upending her life.
In the past few years, perhaps because of the nation’s abiding fear of crime, its litigiousness, or the Internet’s ease at churning up background information that may not have surfaced before, Thomas has been rejected or terminated from several high-paying jobs.
She had been making $150,000 six years ago. Now she is on food stamps. Sheetz, Wal-Mart and other retailers have turned her down for jobs. She could lose her Cecil County, Md., home.
“I came home and got my master’s degree,” said Thomas, 50. “I’d been working 18 years with no problem. When is enough enough?”
Thomas is not the only ex-convict asking for a second chance. But because she was a violent offender, her path to acceptance is hardest, even as Americans reconsider long-standing views of crime and punishment.
More than 600,000 former inmates return to their communities each year. About half of them wind up back in prison. Their convictions, even minor ones, often prevent them from finding jobs, in many cases resulting in their return to crime.
But Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said that he feels that the moment has arrived when concerns about the nation’s disproportionately large and costly prison population have shifted people’s views toward rehabilitating felons.
“We’re at a potentially transformative moment in American history,” Brooks said.
To break the cycle, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other organizations have been pushing “Ban the Box” legislation that would prohibit employers, during preliminary screening, from disqualifying job seekers on the basis of a criminal record. Fourteen states and the District have signed on to such policies, as have 100 cities and counties, according to the National Employment Law Project.
In Virginia, a bill that would have forbidden state agencies from inquiring about criminal background records until after a job offer passed the Senate but died in the House. This month, Maryland’s Senate unanimously passed the Maryland Second Chance Act, allowing people to petition a court to seal records of certain nonviolent offenses. The bill is now in the House.
But there is resistance among many employers.
“It’s well intended and valid in its ambition, but this is not the way to go about it,” said Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business. Ban-the-box policies impose serious burdens on small companies, he said.
Often unable to afford the time or expense to investigate an applicant’s criminal background, such businesses should have the right to ask about a matter of public record, Mozloom said.
“You hire somebody with a felony record, you want to have the conversation: ‘I see you’ve done this. Why should I trust you?’ ” Mozloom said. “They need to explain why they deserve a second chance.”
Thomas entered the criminal justice system in Virginia around the time the public was reexamining its view of women who had killed husbands or companions after years of abuse. In Maryland, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer freed eight female prisoners who had killed their abusers. He argued that the time had come to consider the kind of circumstances that surrounded Thomas’s crime.
Thomas said that her mother’s live-in boyfriend began molesting her when she was 12. The abuse continued for five years, she said, even after Thomas alerted adults.
After dropping out of school, Thomas married and had three children. But the abuse haunted her. It transformed her into a “mannequin” who seemed normal outside but empty inside, she said.
After three suicide attempts, Thomas, then 26, decided to confront her abuser. Armed with a gun, she demanded to know why he had done it. When he told her she must have liked the sex or else she would have stopped it, Thomas said, she shot him. She turned herself in the following day.
Thomas pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The court sentenced her to 40 years, with 20 years suspended. She was incarcerated at the Virginia Correctional Facility for Women in Goochland. The circumstances of the killing and her model behavior helped win her release after seven years. Her record has since been clean, save for one minor, non-moving traffic violation for failing to notify the Motor Vehicle Administration of an address change within the allotted time.
When applying for jobs that ask about criminal records, Thomas answers depending on how the application is worded. She can say no to those that ask whether she has been convicted of a crime within the past 10 years or another specified period. To those that ask whether she has ever been convicted of a felony, she answers yes, but often adds that she would like to explain further in person. Sometimes she is hired, only to be let go after employers run a more exhaustive background check.
In recent years, the Internet has eased the ability of people to run background checks with firms such as Intelius, PeopleSmart and PeopleFinders, and large corporations often run their own extensive checks.
“I can’t tell you how many jobs she’s been through. It’s frustrating,” said Douglas Van Nostrand, director of nuclear medicine at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. He hired Thomas for an entry-level position in his research program years ago and has been a reference for her since.
“I have a great deal of sympathy for her situation and new insight — that I had never understood that when someone comes out with a first-degree felony, it’s going to be very difficult for that person to get a job anywhere,” Van Nostrand said. “. . . This is, as she phrased it, paying the punishment continually, and she’s 25 years out.”
Last August, a California pharmaceutical firm conducted telephone interviews with Thomas, flew her there for three days of interviews and offered to bump up her previous $148,000 salary, she said. Thomas disclosed her criminal record.
“I need to tell you something that you’re going to find out,” Thomas said she told a human resources representative, who thanked her for her honesty. But bad news wasn’t long in coming.
“Before I could get on the airplane . . . I got a call saying, ‘You were lovely, we really enjoyed having you here, but we decided to go with someone else,’ ” Thomas said.
Earlier this year, Thomas spent exactly one week at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company. A recruiting company that placed her there had run a background check that went back seven to 10 years, Thomas said. But after GSK ran a check that went back 30 years, she was escorted from the premises. The public humiliation brought her to tears, she said.
GSK, citing privacy reasons, would not comment on a specific case. The company also defended its hiring practices. “GSK’s recruitment and retention practices related to an applicant’s criminal record are consistent with EEOC guidance and state and local laws,” GSK spokeswoman Melinda Stubbee said in an e-mail, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Before Glaxo, Thomas lasted only about a month at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, N.J. — a dismissal that seemed especially baffling because she worked mostly from home.
Bristol-Myers Squibb denied dismissing Thomas because of her criminal record. Thomas was not a full-time employee with the company, spokesman Ken Dominski said. He said she had been placed there by Spectraforce Technologies, a staffing agency based in Raleigh, N.C.
Spectraforce had cleared Thomas based on its background check, and Bristol-Myers Squibb had no access to her criminal record, Dominski said. Thomas, who was employed from Jan. 12 to Feb. 13, was let go because of “unsatisfactory performance,” Dominski said, without elaborating.
Thomas said her recruiter at Spectraforce expressed “shock” at the dismissal because Thomas had received a promotion with a possible increase in pay a little more than two weeks earlier.
Leah B. Poplin, human resources director for Spectraforce, declined to comment despite Thomas asking in writing that the firm waive Thomas’s right to privacy.
W. Keith Watanabe, an employment lawyer who has assisted Thomas, said employers seldom state the reason for dismissal, especially for contractors such as Thomas.
“The reason why the performance reason is given as a reason is it covers all manners of sin,” Watanabe said. “Because of its vagueness and its ambiguity, it can mean whatever the employer wants it to mean.”
Thomas knows other factors may also be strikes against her, including discriminatory ones such as age, race and gender. But she sees plenty of evidence that she is still paying for a crime that occurred half a lifetime ago.
“I just feel like the punishment never ends,” she said.