Before Curtis Butler went to prison, he was a union pipefitter and HVAC worker, working in airports, refineries and power plants.
When he was released, he had nothing but the clothes on his back — his work experience was practically useless.
With a robbery conviction on his record, Butler is no longer eligible for the federal identification card that permits people to enter most of the places he worked before.
Restrictions also apply to ex-offenders to get state work-related licenses, many construction sites ban former felons, and hosts of other employers cite internal policies blocking the hiring of those with a criminal past.
“Those doors are all closed to me,” he said.
State lawmakers this year, prompted by Attorney General Kathy Jennings and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, have tried making it easier for people like Butler, seizing on a nationwide bipartisan trend of reforming the criminal justice system.
Gov. John Carney signed legislation expanding the kinds of crimes that can be sealed from one’s record. It paves the way for people in situations like Butler’s to overcome their past.
Sponsors of the bill said more than 80,000 Delawareans could be eligible to have one-time misdemeanor convictions expunged after five years, or to ask a court to expunge one-time felony convictions after seven years.
Lawmakers also passed legislation, awaiting Carney’s signature, to make it easier for ex-offenders to obtain licenses to become electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians and massage therapists.
The measures are the beginning of what advocates hope are steps toward giving those convicted of crimes a better chance of reforming themselves into productive, law-abiding citizens after their release.
Roughly 6,000 people are released from Delaware custody each year. For ex-offenders in the Wilmington area, who come from neighborhoods ravaged by drugs and violence, the new bills bring some hope that they might break out of the cycle of recidivism.
“Sometimes people feel like there’s no hope,” said Terrence Bailey, 44, who’s been convicted multiple times of drug offenses and now works two jobs to sustain himself and make a dent in the pile of court fines he owes.
Bailey grew up in Wilmington, in a two-parent household that fell apart when his mother began using crack. He said he started selling drugs at a young age because that’s what other people in the neighborhood were doing, and he was lured by the money they made.
Returning home from prison in the early 2000s, Bailey said he struggled to find a job.
“I went back to what I knew” — dealing drugs, he said. “My options were limited.”
With the help of the Wilmington HOPE Commission, which helps those leaving prison, Bailey now works at Just to Serve You, a soul food restaurant in Little Italy, during the day and as a hospital janitor at night.
He said the possibility of expungement will give people in his situation hope that he never had.
“It seems like we’re stuck, and we’re so used to it that it becomes normal that we can’t do anything else,” Bailey said.
His story echoes those of other ex-offenders who spoke with The News Journal. Prisoners in Delaware, they said, have few opportunities to join training programs.
Those who are motivated to find productive work on the outside are often stopped by background checks, pushing them into low-skill, low-pay jobs that make it hard to keep up with expenses, court fines, child support and other debts that pile up during time in prison.
Maurice Plummer, who has been convicted of drug charges in Wilmington, said he’s been turned away from everything from delivery warehouses to motorcycle mechanics shops because of his felony conviction.
“I was like, really? To fix a motorcycle?” he said.
He now works as a cashier and, through a temporary work agency, a prep cook, but said he needs a job with benefits to pay for dental expenses.
As the new bills made their way through Dover this year, only one group representing employers supported expungement, the Association of Builders and Contractors.
A construction boom in Delaware means contractors are looking to hire, said president Ed Cappadonno.
“We’re struggling to find people to work in our industry,” he said. “We believe that if an individual has been formerly incarcerated and has done their time, comes back out into workforce and proves they’re willing to work, any measure that helps that in any industry, that’s gotta be a positive.”
Haneef Salaam, who works with former prisoners at the HOPE Commission, said the bills were a “great first step” and that he hopes the backing of local politicians will get more employers to turn the corner on hiring ex-offenders.
Even with his skills, Butler, said he’s been turned away from entry-level mechanic jobs since being released from prison earlier this year.
The Hockessin man lived an unremarkable life before 2015, raising two children and also volunteering as a firefighter. But when a series of personal tragedies, including the death of a fellow firefighter, collided, he became suicidal.
Drunk and high, Butler committed a series of robberies in the Wilmington suburbs that year, believing he would be shot.
Over three years in prison, he said he got the mental health treatment he needed. Now, he’s staying in transitional housing in Wilmington and started a job as a cook where he was placed after taking classes at the Food Bank of Delaware.
He considers himself lucky, and said he hopes the new criminal justice bills will change employers’ minds about those with criminal histories and “help them be whole again.”
“They’re telling you you’re not whole, that you can’t do this job, because you’re bad,” Butler said. “But people have issues, and sometimes they’re messy. But we’re willing to do the work.”
Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Send her your stories about coming home from prison at email@example.com or (302) 324-2476.