From criminal to D.C. official

After his most recent release from prison, Rodney Mitchell began searching for a job. Though he trained for several months to become a certified bus driver, the District refused to hire him. Mitchell was a felon and his record included charges of robbery, burglary and weapons possession.

When Mitchell applied for a job as a janitor, he lied about his criminal record to avoid rejection. He needed money to support his daughter, but he constantly feared that someone would reveal his lie.

“I always thought I would be able to bounce back – bounce back to what, to where, though, I didn’t know,” Mitchell said.

In his new position as director for the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, Mitchell’s criminal record is well publicized. Mitchell, an alumnus of GW Law School, said he believes it is his history inside the criminal justice system, not just his schooling, that makes him qualified for his new job.

“I want people to not to have to lie for fear of being discovered or caught,” Mitchell said. He said he is living proof that programs aimed at helping felons transition back into society can be successful.

Using some of the money he earned as a janitor, Mitchell took classes at a junior college and eventually transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his undergraduate work. He obtained his juris doctorate from GW’s Law School in 2002.

Mitchell said he knows what it is like to be discriminated against by job seekers, landlords and the community.

“The personal experience helps,” Mitchell said in terms of his ability to relate to the ex-offenders he works with, “But just that wouldn’t be sufficient to do the job.”

Mitchell’s office will work with D.C. area programs not only to transition ex-offenders back in society, but also to prevent would-be offenders from committing crimes. Currently, the office advocates for ex-offenders and offers counseling services.

Mitchell was born and raised in Southeast D.C. and attended H.D. Woodson public high school. Upon graduation, Mitchell joined the Air Force, but spent the years following his service in and out of Los Angeles jails. He said ex-offenders come from all walks of life, from college professors to winos.

“These are people who have made mistakes and who are now in a position where they are back in society and being discriminated against,” Mitchell said.

Prior to his current position, Mitchell served as coordinator for the Community Reentry Program at Public Defender Services in D.C. His recent appointment should be officially confirmed by Mayor Adrian Fenty in April or May, but in the meantime, Mitchell has already worked with about 150 ex-offenders.

These folks have already paid their debt to society, and this job is all about helping them,” Mitchell said. “I am aiming for a 100 percent success rate.”

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