Willy Valdes Torres took the stand in Bell County’s 426th District Court in December. He wore an orange prison jumpsuit.
Torres was given deferred adjudication for a felony aggravated assault charge committed in 2003. After he violated the terms of his probation, prosecutors moved to adjudicate the charge late last year. For Torres, a revocation might mean time in prison and a felony conviction.
He made a case to Judge Fancy Jezek on why he shouldn’t go to prison. He referred to his 88-year-old father and his 9-day-old infant daughter.
Finding employment is challenging, he said.
“Getting a job out there with a felony is very hard... especially with a family,” Torres said. “It’s already hard to make ends meet, and minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”
Jezek decided not to adjudicate Torres’ felony charge, but extended his deferred adjudication for another 18 months. He’s also required to spend up to 120 days in one of the state’s Intermediate Sanction Facilities, which are short-term correctional-rehabilitation centers.
Individuals with felony convictions face several challenges when it comes to finding work after they are released.
“It’s usually up to the company whether or not they want to hire convicted felons,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Inmate Families Association.
Depending on the type of felony and the kind of crime committed, convicted felons can be barred from certain jobs. The Texas Workforce Commission’s website features a nearly 10-page listing of statutory restrictions on the employment of convicted felons in Texas. Among those are bans or restrictions on jobs ranging from alarm system installer and bail bondsman to acupuncturist and even mortician and embalmer.
For convicted felons looking to enter a trade, getting a license also can be difficult.
“Many occupations require certifications,” Erschabek said. “Sometimes that presents a challenge for them.”
According to information from the commission, a licensing authority may disqualify a person from earning a license or even bar them from taking a licensing exam on grounds the person was convicted of a felony or misdemeanor which “directly relates to the duties or responsibilities of the licensed occupation.”
Some the state laws governing the employment of felons are in conflict with hiring guidelines adopted by the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal guidelines limit the ability of employers — including the state of Texas and its agencies — from categorically excluding convicted felons from employment.
In November, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott challenged the federal guidelines as “unlawful” claiming that following the new regulations meant Texas would have to begin evaluating and hiring felons for law enforcement jobs or teach in local elementary schools.
“Texas has an obligation to enforce its absolute ban on hiring convicted felons for certain jobs such as state troopers, school teachers and jailers,” Abbott said.
Even without all the red tape, regulations and statutes governing hiring practices, many Texas felons would still face a difficult road trying to find employment in any sector.
“Besides having the felony conviction, they may have limited job experience and limited education,” Erschabek said. “Some may have limited cognitive skills, mental health or be recovering from substance abuse or mental health problems.”
Erschabek said individuals could take action while still in prison to improve their chances, such as earning a GED or taking college or vocational education classes while incarcerated.
However, the types of programs available depends on the facility where inmates are serving their sentences. “Different units have different programs, and those programs may have space limitations,” Erschabek said.