Permanent Punishments Keep People From Serving Our Communities

Rudy Cary recently received a pardon from the Governor of Virginia that will let him again work as a … [+] substance abuse counselor.

Institute for Justice

Rudy Carey was told he could never be a substance abuse counselor in Virginia. Minnesota said that Ifrah Yassin could never work for her family’s business. FCC enforcers tried to take away Joe Armstrong’s license to broadcast. Each of them was facing a permanent punishment for something they thought was in their past. But they persevered and, hopefully, each of them has paved the way for others to make a fresh start.

When a judge tells someone what their sentence is, they only get a hint of what their total punishment might be. This is because after someone serves their prison or probation term, after their fines are paid, and sometimes even after their civil rights are restored, they can still be barred from certain jobs or government privileges. The legal term for this is collateral consequences, but permanent punishment is a more fitting term.

About one out of three Americans have been arrested or convicted of a crime. At the same time, about one in five jobs require an occupational license, a permission slip from the government to work a certain job. Many of these licenses are off-limits for people with a criminal record, even if their offense has little or nothing to do with the occupation they want to work in.

In Rudy Carey’s case, he was permanently barred from ever being a drug counselor in the state of Virginia. But Rudy worked as a drug counselor for years, because his first employer did not realize it was breaking the law by employing him. Rudy struggled for years with addiction, sometimes living on the streets, and occasionally running into law enforcement.

While in the grip of addiction, Rudy had tried to run away from an officer, who he ended up striking while being put in handcuffs. That crime, committed in 2004, is one of nearly 200 “barrier crimes” that keeps someone from working as a counselor forever.

But Rudy turned his life around. In 2007 he completed rehab, he got married, and he completed hundreds of hours of coursework and training in substance-abuse counseling. By all accounts, Rudy was a great counselor and even won his facility’s “counselor of the year” award. But when the facility changed management, his new employer realized that it could not legally employ Rudy.

In 2021, Rudy challenged that law in a federal lawsuit. That suit received a good deal of media attention sympathetic to Rudy’s story. As his case was working through the courts, the governor of Virginia granted Rudy a pardon, wiping away his barrier crime. While that enables Rudy to get his license and apply for jobs, it unfortunately leaves the hurdle in place for others.

Ifrah was facing punishment over a crime she never actually committed. She was arrested on suspicion of robbery but was released without charges when the supposed victim’s story didn’t add up. But while the criminal justice system never condemned her, the Minnesota Department of Human Services gave her a lifetime ban from working in health care based on its own conclusion that she “committed an act that meets the definition of Aggravated Robbery.”

This meant Ifrah could not work for her family’s group home to support herself and her daughter. Thankfully, after the Institute for Justice wrote a letter challenging the factual and legal bases for the ban, the agency withdrew its disqualification. Still, there are other Minnesotans who’ve been banned for mere arrests, even when they were released without delay on false charges.

Joe’s permanent punishment was the potential loss of his broadcast license for WJBE radio, a station originally founded by James Brown and revived by Joe. WJBE is the only Black-owned and Black-community focused radio station in his hometown of Knoxville.

For years he broadcast without any problems. However, the FCC tried to take away his broadcast license because he was convicted of making a false statement—on his 2008 personal tax return. Joe served his sentence, paid his fines and even had his civil rights restored, but the FCC questioned his ability to follow its rules. That didn’t make much sense because he had a track record of following those rules.

With the help of IJ, Joe fought back in an internal FCC court. His attorneys reviewed and produced 28,000 pages of documents to defend the station. While agency judges are notorious for agreeing with their colleagues, the judge overseeing his case ruled that Joe should not have his broadcast license revoked. Joe’s case may not keep agency enforcers from going after another station owner for an old conviction, but it does provide hope that the enforcers don’t always win.

Rudy, Ifrah, and Joe’s stories had happy endings. Their stories are inspiring, and hopefully they inspire change. That their ability to work and contribute to their community was even challenged is sad. Permanent punishments keep people from making a fresh start and getting a second chance to make a difference.

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