Starting in June 2005, I had literally hundreds of conversations with men and women — mostly men, and mostly from Baltimore — about their struggles to land jobs after prison. Most employers wanted nothing to do with these guys, especially the ones who had committed violent crimes.
But most of those I interviewed had not been convicted of killing anyone; they had not beaten anyone or engaged in armed robbery. Most were in their 30s and 40s and had gone away for selling or using illegal narcotics.
When I offered to provide information about re-entry programs for ex-offenders and a short list of companies willing to hire them, my phone at The Baltimore Sun rang pretty much for the next three years. I still get at least one letter a week from someone who "just got home" and can't find work.
I received one the other day from James (no last name given), who says he first spoke to me seven years ago.
"Today," he wrote, "I am unemployed, still fighting society to see me as a person and not an animal and each time I apply for a job or even view a potential job, I see 'must have clean background' [on the listing]. ...
"I messed up, I broke society's laws, and, I paid for my crimes. ... I am not asking for handouts. All I and every person like me are asking is that you see us as human beings. We can offer a lot to society, can be trusted and dependable."
Of course, most people don't feel that way.
In fact, with only a few exceptions — small business owners informed by a religious belief in redemption or a desperate need to hire someone quickly and at low wage — hundreds of thousands of American employers do not embrace second chances.
Heightened security since 9/11, the war on drugs, our world-record incarceration rates of the last two decades, and the Great Recession have all contributed to an ex-offender unemployment rate estimated between 40 percent and 60 percent.
Now allow me to introduce ex-offender Gregory Hall, though his problem does not happen to be chronic unemployment.
Since his days of trouble with the law, Hall has found a way to support himself and a family in Prince George's County.
He's an ex-offender success story — except that overcoming adversity doesn't seem to be working in his favor.
Hall had a job with the Prince George's County Council and the county's Public Works Department. He grew interested in politics and ran against Tiffany Alston for the House of Delegates in 2010, losing by only 310 votes.
This year, when Alston ran afoul of the law, the Democratic Central Committee in the county nominated Hall to take her place. Alston was removed from office after she was convicted of stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an employee of her law firm.
But when word got around that Hall was the committee's nominee to replace Alston, his nomination ran into trouble.
Hall was a crack dealer once upon a time — 21 years ago, when he was 21 — and he told the central committee that he took up that illicit occupation to support his parents, one of whom had health problems.
Furthermore, The Washington Post reported, Hall was once implicated in the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy during a street shootout in Capitol Heights. That was in 1992.
Hall spent 40 days in jail, according to the Post, but the charge was dropped after tests showed the fatal bullet had not come from his gun.
Hall tells people about his past and doesn't hide it, according to published reports.
But it caught up with him within the last couple of weeks. The governor of Maryland is an ambitious Democrat who, with the self-righteousness of Javert, feels a need to prove over and over that he's tough on crime. So he refused to approve Hall's nomination and asked the central committee to withdraw it.
On Friday, the Maryland Court of Appeals put the matter on hold until a hearing can be held to sort out Hall's eligibility to replace Alston should her removal from the House stand.
I hope the court says it's OK for him to take the seat.
Hall's bad business was 20 years ago. He is a reformed drug dealer, and isn't that what we want drug dealers to be? He has worked for local government and started a small business. He even came close to winning a popular election. Any other runner-up for a legislative seat would get a quick nod in the event of a vacancy.
But apparently not someone with a criminal record two decades in the past.
We like to think we're generous, down with forgiveness and down with redemption, that we're willing to grant second chances to others because that's what we'd want from them.
But we're not there yet, and sadly there's not much in the way of moral leadership on this front, either.