Students amble through a sprawling asphalt lot, toting their backpacks and laptops and books on their way to class at Pima Community College's West Campus.
Sprinkled among them are ex-felons who've already done their time, but may be about to face another sentence. Like the other students, they spend their days absorbing lectures and their nights nose-deep in textbooks. Unlike other students, however, they may face roadblocks rendering all of their hard work meaningless.
Any state-licensed profession--from accounting and dentistry to driving a truck--can present a problem for those with a felony in the closet. But ex-offenders studying at Pima--and, apparently, at many other Arizona institutions--aren't notified of this by advisers or academic counselors. In fact, some students nearly have their diploma in hand before they learn of their newest, sometimes insurmountable hurdle.
Michele Convie can tell you how that feels. She did time for two smallish pot busts, but nearly two decades later--and after earning a degree from Pima Community College--she faced a bureaucratic jungle in getting security clearance as a social worker. When ex-felons apply for such clearance, processed through the Arizona Department of Public Safety, "they deny you immediately," she says, "without telling you how to appeal."
According to Convie, the student's history is scrutinized for every infraction, right down to the last traffic ticket. Even then, they can be denied--laying waste to all their college tuition and hard work.
Convie was among the fortunate; she emerged from the regulatory thicket, and now works as program coordinator for the Women's Re-Entry Network. But many others aren't so lucky.
To her, this system is unjust for offenders who've already paid their dues. "The sanction is called 'moral turpitude,'" she says. In short, it's a morality meter, employed by the state and excoriating people already struggling to change their lives. "It didn't keep me from being a social worker, but it sure made it a lot harder," she says. "I had to have a criminal background clearance, and that took another year after I was finished with school." Meanwhile, there are plenty of war stories out there from others who didn't fare so well. For example, there's the student who'd been convicted of embezzling long ago, and had served her time. She was well into nursing school before learning she was ineligible for a nursing license. "She can't even become a phlebotomist," Convie says. "She asked her (school) adviser, who didn't know anything about it."
Therein lies the rub, according to Convie and other former offenders, who on Feb. 19 took their case to the Pima Community College Board of Governors. "Pima College has been the choice of the majority of nontraditional students in Southern Arizona seeking advancement in education and employment," they wrote to the board. "However, there is a significant barrier that exists for many present and future Pima students that is not addressed in any college literature, or a topic in advising and counseling ...
"Licensing requirements vary among professions, and all of these professions have different protocols to address petitions from individuals who meet all other requirements. There are appeal processes in place; however, Pima students do not receive this vital employment information from the college or the department, since most advisers and instructors are uninformed on this topic."
They then asked college officials to contact various licensing boards and obtain the requirements for students with criminal records, to have that information handy for future reference.
Seems reasonable. And according to Convie, the board was "very receptive. They were aware the problem existed."
But only barely. In fact, it's an issue that has flown under the radar of many institutions, says Pima spokesman Dave Irwin. Still, becoming aware of the problem is only half the battle; the other half is learning how to fix it. Only now are college attorneys understanding how complex these licensing hurdles truly are.
"We began addressing it on Feb. 5," Irwin said recently. "Each of the campus presidents was asked to determine which programs on their campuses were affected and to send that information to the provost's office by March 15." Irwin predicted having a plan in hand within a couple of weeks.
Instead, he called back a short time later to revise that timetable. A college attorney, asked to review all the requirements for all the licenses, reported that task may prove monumental, and all bets were off for when that research might be finished.
Either way, when Pima finishes wading through this quagmire, they'll have plenty to share with other schools across Arizona, since apparently, none of them have wrestled with it.
But even getting a handle on all the complicated requirements--and then helping students navigate them--is ultimately just treating the symptom of a deeper malaise.
Everything comes back to the notion that once you're an offender, you're always an offender. But that's a risky proposition in light of current prison statistics. According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, America has more than one in every 100 adults behind bars. That means community colleges such as Pima are bound to see an increasing number of ex-cons filling their classrooms.
In the meantime, professions that need warm bodies go begging. There's now an estimated 10 percent shortage of nurses, and by the year 2020, that number is expected to jump to 30 percent.
But according to state licensing protocols, "the Board of Nursing shall not grant a license, or shall revoke a license if previously granted, or decline to renew the license of an applicant who has one or more felony convictions and who has not received an absolute discharge from the sentences for all felony convictions five or more years before the date of filing an application."
And truck drivers? The American Trucking Association estimates that the industry is currently short about 20,000 drivers--a number that could rise to 110,000 over the next few years.
Still, the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division won't issue a license to anyone convicted of a DUI with a blood-alcohol level higher than 0.04 in the past year. That's not unreasonable. But the law guidelines also place a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of using a commercial vehicle to distribute drugs.
Such rules scream for reform, say Convie and other activists, to give people a second chance, and let them fill necessary jobs--whether or not they have a dusty criminal record in the closet.