What if you were fired for a mistake you made at 17?
Editor’s Note: This case is dear to my heart, not only because it represents much-needed justice for formerly incarcerated people, but also because of the law firm at the center of it: MFY Legal Services. My sister, who I often describe as “fighting the good fight,” is a staff attorney there. Special thanks to her for encouraging me to learn—and write—about this case.
In 1993, Madeline Acosta was a 17-year-old senior at John Jay High School, a public school in Brooklyn, when she started dating a guy who she would later describe as physically abusive. While they were together, he convinced her—coerced her, really—into participating in a series of armed robberies. Among the items they stole was a personalized Metro card, which Madeline later tried to use to get home from school, only to be stopped by a police officer who ran a check and discovered that it had been stolen. She and her boyfriend were arrested. She pleaded guilty and was sent to prison for four to 12 years.
Madeline strove to be a model inmate. She studied for her GED, while also taking vocational classes and participating in anger management workshops. Eventually, she started facilitating conflict-resolution courses and started tutoring fellow prisoners to help them earn their GEDs. Like many people behind bars, she took an interest in legal studies, securing jobs as a law clerk and grievance representative, which allowed her to go outside the prison gates.
In 1996, Madeline was paroled after just over three years, at the age of 21. From then on she worked hard at her education, while also making time to try to help others who found themselves in her situation. She took night classes at the City University of New York (CUNY) and continued her conflict-resolution work, giving speeches at prisons and colleges on behalf of a group called Alternatives to Violence. In 2001, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Legal Assistant Studies from CUNY Technical College and soon got a series of paralegal jobs, first at an environmental law firm, and then at a firm doing worker’s compensation. Along the way, she had a son; soon, she decided she wanted a job that would allow her to spend more time with him.
That’s when her crimes as a teenager caught up with her. Three months after getting a clerical job at the Cooke Center for Learning and Development, which provides special education inside New York City schools, Madeline applied for a security clearance—a requirement of the New York Department of Education. After supplying the DOE with letters of recommendation and other documents related to her educational, job, and volunteer history, she was brought into an interview. The DOE claims the interview was a half-hour long. Madeline says it lasted five minutes. Regardless, one thing was clear: The DOE had no interest in reviewing the many materials she had to prove that she was no longer the troubled teenager she had once been. Instead, after being asked about the crime that sent her to prison, she was asked by the interviewer to summarize the documents and put it in an email. Two weeks later, her security clearance was denied. The DOE had decided that Madeline still posed an “unreasonable risk to the safety and welfare of the school community.” She lost her job—a job, it bears mentioning, that involved no interaction with the students in said community.
That was 2006. Ever since, Madeline has been fighting back, suing the DOE for denying her employment based on her criminal record. When her lawsuit was initially turned down, she turned to MFY Legal Services, which sued for information on how thoroughly the DOE reviews the applications of ex-offenders. “We’ve had many people come to us with complaints about denials of employment by the DOE, and there appears to be a clear pattern of automatically denying employment to applicants with criminal conviction records seeking clerical and other non-teaching jobs,” one of her attorneys said in 2009. “Most of our clients are women like Ms. Acosta,” another MFY attorney said. “They got in trouble when they were young and now they’re responsible adults trying to make a living and support their kids. If the DOE won’t hire someone like Madeline Acosta, who will they hire?”
Many prominent allies joined her cause, including six New York-based advocacy organizations—the Community Service Society, Bronx Defenders, Legal Action Center, Fortune Society, Osborne Association, and STRIVE—who filed an amicus brief on her behalf in 2008, writing:
Madeline Acosta is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of New Yorkers who long ago left criminality behind but are still punished by their records. Some have more overwhelming evidence of rehabilitation than Ms. Acosta; many have less. All of them have fulfilled society‘s expectations, completing substance abuse, anti-violence, and vocational training, and they therefore have every right to expect the fair treatment state law guarantees when they search for employment.
The implications of this case, they argued, not only affect others like Madeline, “who want and deserve to work,” but also all taxpayers when publicly funded and government agencies fail to hire the most qualified individuals due to discrimination based solely on prior criminal record.”
In a fair society, there is no more fitting role for a government which deprives a person of liberty to later reintegrate that person into the community through meaningful, well-paid employment—and an opportunity for a second chance.
Of all the challenges facing prisoners when they get out, finding a job is usually at the very top. Stories like Madline’s provide a sobering glimpse at just how much a criminal conviction can haunt you—even if you were a juvenile at the time and have spent the rest of your life trying to overcome it. If this is the experience of a once-model inmate who has held multiple administrative jobs years after doing her time, what are the odds for those whose records are not as pristine—but who need to work in order to survive?
Fortunately, this story does not end here. Yesterday, in an important and hard-fought ruling by the New York Court of Appeals, Madeline Acosta finally won her case. The court ruled that the DOE had “acted arbitrarily” in denying her employment, reversing a decision by a lower court.
Today, Madeline Acosta is 35 years old. Her son is six. The stigma of prison can take years to overcome, but because of her tenacity, ex-offenders in New York now have a better chance of seeking a job without having their past mistakes work against them. “For years the courts have been deferring to the determinations made by administrative agencies in cases like these without holding the agencies to the standards articulated in the law,” MFY’s Carolyn Coffey, who argued the case, said. “This case will help other people who got in trouble in the past but are now law-abiding citizens to be treated fairly by employers.”