With her long strawberry blonde hair, white cable-knit sweater and pearl necklace, Emily Gause is the picture of conservative professionalism. When asked about the subject matter for this story, though, the first words out of her mouth might surprise you.
“I would absolutely hire someone with a felony record,” she says, without a moment’s hesitation.
And Gause has a more informed opinion about the matter than most: Since graduating from the Seattle University School of Law six years ago, every one of the 400 cases she’s handled so far was defending someone accused of a heinous crime.
So why is she so willing to give a former convict a second chance?
“I think there’s something to be said about realizing that people who are in the criminal justice system are in crisis. There’s something going on in their lives that’s underlying (their behavior),” Gause explains. “And that they are people. They are kids, they are parents. They have families that love them, and they didn’t start out stealing from banks or robbing people. Something else is going on that needs to be addressed.
“A conviction can follow you around for life, and it can be very hard to find your way again in terms of finding a home, finding employment,” she continues. “Someone may make a decision in a moment that changes their lives forever, and yes, they are going to be punished for it. However, even a felony conviction with no jail time is a significant punishment for someone who’s never been in trouble before. For those who do get handed prison sentences, some people get an enormous amount of time for a relatively insignificant crime.”
Gause is willing to put her money where her mouth is. Only a tiny minority of the people in the system are sociopaths with no sense of remorse, she says. But meanwhile, “there are a lot of people who are facing charges for their first offense—a lot of people—and those are the ones I believe that just having that experience of being in the criminal justice system is what will turn it around for them. They will say, ‘No. I am never, ever, ever going to do anything close to that again.’ ”
So if a former convict with the right skills approached her for a job at her office in Tukwila, Wash., “I would ask them a lot of questions about what was going on in their life at the time that they committed the crime,” she tells Citizen. “I’d see whether they have the insight of where they went wrong, and if they’ve really grappled with what put them in that bad place. And then I’d ask them how they know they’re not going to be there again. What do you have in place for coping mechanisms and a support system so you know you’re going to be successful this time around?”
But ultimately, hiring someone with a felony in their background isn’t that different from any other hiring decision, she says.
“With any person you hire, you don’t know if it’s going to work out with personality fit. You don’t know if you can really trust them. That trust has to be earned with any employee,” she points out. “You don’t want to give them access to your financial accounts right away. You’ve got to know they’ve got competence to do the job correctly. So I don’t think it really changes if someone has a felony background or not. You’ve still got to be careful about who you’re bringing into your business. As with any employee, it has to be a good fit.”
But “someone shouldn’t be precluded just because they have a felony. You may realize that person has more life experience and more dedication and more drive to do really well in that position because he knows what it’s like not to have a job, he knows how far down he got and is lifting himself back up. You’re getting an employee who is dedicated and working hard to make sure his life is turned around.”
Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.