Benjamin Paul was thrilled by the opportunity Atlanta afforded. The single father was a career adviser at Miami Dade College and, in June, was offered a similar gig at Georgia Institute of Technology. It was a ticket to the big time in an ascendant city.
The $50,000 job was not only career advancement, it was a poignant tale of redemption. Paul, who sold drugs in his teens, had steadily toiled to turn his life around and prove he would not become just a young black man who fell off the rails early on.
The job’s start date was Aug. 1, so Paul found an apartment in the gentrifying area of Atlanta. It was near his job and, more importantly, would allow his third-grade daughter to attend a good school.
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Never mind that Paul’s crimes — felonies that he had admitted to the university — were committed 12 years ago or earlier, occurring when he was 17 and 18. Paul is now 30.
Paul moved to Miami to escape bad influences in his native Tampa. He worked to get a GED, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s and finally a master’s. He dutifully worked at Miami Dade College for four years and erased early suspicions to earn rave references from supervisors. He’s an ordained minister and pieced together school, work and child care to raise a young daughter who is said to be a delight.
Paul admits his criminal record “looks real messy on paper.” The background check found convictions for sale of cocaine, being a delinquent in possession of a firearm and two robberies without a weapon.
He admits he sold small amounts of coke and “tried to shake down some junkies for cash. That didn’t go well.”
Paul served less than a year and then left Tampa. Getting a job is crucial for probationers to turn their lives around. It also proves to be difficult. He applied for entry-level jobs with Kroger, Target and UPS, but after background checks, the answer was no each time.
"When determining whether a candidate with disclosed criminal convictions is eligible for employment or promotion, the (Background Investigation Officer) will consider the specific responsibilities of the position for which the candidate is being considered, the nature, number and gravity of crimes for which the candidate was convicted and the amount of time that has passed since the conviction," according to the University System of Georgia's hiring guide.
Georgia Tech would not comment on Paul.
The school, which otherwise hasn't been good about policing in-house shenanigans with administrators, wants another decade or two of Paul's good behavior to roll by.
After moving to Miami, Paul worked under-the-table jobs until he caught on with AmeriCorps, where he established a food pantry at Miami Dade College. Supervisors and co-workers liked his initiative and energy. He then told them about his past.
“I’ve done this 100 times; I’ve learned don’t bring it up until you have to,” he said.
Nathaniel Gomez, then a college supervisor at Miami Dade College, said several managers, including the dean, met to discuss Paul. They decided to keep him. By then, he had formed relationships and “had made a name as a positive, dedicated, professional employee,” Gomez said. Paul later got a couple of promotions.
“He earned everything he got,” Gomez, who was one of Paul’s references to Tech, said. “He’s one of those people I could put my name out there for.”
“Miami Dade College was my moment of redemption,” Paul said, adding that he did his best after being allowed to stay.
But he was making just $30,000 and could only afford to live in a “hole-in-the-wall” efficiency apartment for him and his daughter.
“With the master’s degree (I earned this summer), I had the confidence to venture out. I have experience. I have an education. Georgia Tech told me my references were stellar,” he said.
But his past, 12 years in the mirror, caught up with him again.
In recent years, society has increasingly pushed criminal justice reform after years of a tough-on-crime approach that has left offenders stacked up like cord wood.
Gov. Nathan Deal created the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to try to move thousands of Georgians from prison bunks into society as productive citizens.
The AJC reached out to Deal's son, Jason, a judge in Gainesville, Georgia. Deal has been an advocate of drug court, which tries to find ways to give people second and third chances.
Deal said cases such as Paul’s are not uncommon. “Unfortunately, I see that fairly often in drug court,” he said. “They get a job and are working the job well, and after 30 days, they do a background check and they lose the job. The company says, ‘Well, that’s the policy.’”
Steven Teske, chief juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Georgia, said, “This creates a very heavy yoke around ex-offenders, and who it hurts most is people of color.”
Georgia is a “right to work state,” meaning companies largely have free rein to do as they please. Companies argue they want to know whether their employees are a threat to other employees and worry about liability.
“But at what point is it necessary to keep an ex-offender on a list?” Teske said. “This guy for the last 12 years has lived an ideal life, but his name continues to be on a list that serves no purpose for society.
“What pisses me off is many of the people (who are hard-liners concerning second chances) go to church and read the (Bible) scripture that says, ‘Forgive seven times 70 times.’ But they don’t live it. It’s hypocrisy.”
Maybe someone will put those teachings in action for Paul, who, like the Apostle Paul, has undergone a life change.
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