Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who killed an unarmed man named Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 when he shot him in the back, was reunited with his family this week after he was released from jail. He served just under a year of his two-year prison sentence in Los Angeles County Jail. Grant’s family may still be grieving their senseless loss, but the San Francisco Examiner reports that Mehserle is ready to move on with his life.
Mehserle’s now spending time with his girlfriend and two and half year old son in Los Angeles. He’s also looking to move back to the Bay Area, his attorney Michael Rains says, and is hoping to find work in sales or retail because, Rains told the paper, "because he’s so good with people."
After receiving the least possible jail time for the lightest possible charge he faced, Mehserle may begin his job hunt as a convicted felon with high hopes for a fresh start. Other folks without the benefit of Mehserle’s privilege and connections who leave prison and attempt reentry themselves often face an uphill battle, though.
When Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project testified in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, he told the story of two formerly incarcerated people who were convicted of far less serious crimes, but found it impossible to get work after leaving prison.
Eugene Johnson and Evelyn Houser were two African American applicants denied employment through this process. Johnson, who has done field survey work for market researchers, had been arrested on misdemeanor assault charges in 1995 stemming from a dispute with his landlord. He was sentenced to perform community service and pay restitution. Houser, a 69-year old retired home health care aide, had been arrested in 1981 and charged with theft and forgery involving a check she had found near a dumpster and cashed. She was placed in a diversion program and was not even formally convicted. In 1990, she had been hired as a census taker, and had no subsequent arrests. But neither Johnson nor Houser could produce court records to document that their cases had been settled, and so both were denied employment.
Their stories are not uncommon, and the myriad difficulties that the formerly incarcerated face–finding jobs, landing housing, being able to get and education and adjust to life outside of prison–often themselves contribute to high recidivism rates.
"Each year 700,000 people leave prison and millions more leave local jails. The consequences of their criminal conviction remain present even after incarceration and hinder their reintegration," Mauer said. "People leaving incarceration need a reasonable opportunity at a successful life but collateral consequences can make this impossible, resulting in an almost inevitable rearrest or reincarceration."
Indeed. What lies ahead for Mehserle, a white former police officer who did a year in jail for killing an unarmed black man, who was himself a father and a son, is still uncertain. His attorney has high hopes for him, though.
Mehserle, Rains told the Examiner, "is a people person and will try to find a job where he’s not buried in an office somewhere." Before becoming a cop he worked in wine sales, and people liked him a great deal, his attorney said.