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Mobtown Beat

History Lesson

Ex-Juvenile Offender Loses Prospective Job After Appearing in CP Article

By Molly Rath | Posted 2/13/2002

On Feb. 1, two days after a City Paper story on Maryland's juvenile-justice system hit the street, Marcus Dixon, 18, got a call from his supervisor at Primerica Financial Services. Dixon had been prominently featured in the article ("Shackled," Jan. 30); at 15 he had been charged as a juvenile with distributing cocaine, but in the three years since he has turned his life around. Last September, he started training to sell insurance for Primerica; on Feb. 8, he was scheduled to take an exam to earn his license.

The day he got the call, Dixon's supervisor and another Primerica executive met him at a restaurant in Waverly, across the street from the Community Mediation Program, where Dixon volunteers. They had a copy of the article, he says, and a photo caption that noted his past activities was highlighted. "So you've had some felonies," the conversation began, Dixon says.

Dixon had not reported the drug case on his Primerica application, which asks about criminal history. Because his charges were incurred as a juvenile and he served no time (other than participating in a program for young offenders), he says, he didn't think it applied. Citing company policy and orders from above, the executives let Dixon go. While they urged him to get legal advice regarding the dismissal, he says, they also told him he was unlikely to pass a background check if he sought work in financial services and advised him to cancel the scheduled exam.

Primerica regional vice president Laila O'Brien, who delivered the news, says Dixon was not fired because he never actually worked for the firm, which hires its insurance agents as independent contractors. "He can't say he is a representative of Primerica unless he's licensed," she says. "He hasn't been terminated because he's not even part of our company."

On his application, Dixon answered "no" when asked if he had ever been charged with, pled guilty to, or convicted of a felony--the word "ever" emphasized in bold capital letters. After discovering otherwise in the CP article, the company began an investigation, O'Brien says. "We're waiting on documents from Marcus, court documents about his arrests," she says. "We told him to put everything on halt until this investigation is complete."

Dixon says he considered his "no" answer accurate because, while he was found "delinquent" by the court, he wasn't sentenced to detention or jail. He also believed that because juvenile records are not public, they didn't apply. "The court found me delinquent, yeah, but . . . they said they were going to give me a second chance, so basically I got off scot-free," he says. As to the company's assertion that he wasn't "fired," he says, "It's all the same thing." The message, he says, is that he isn't welcome at Primerica.

Mark Supic, Primerica's senior vice president of corporate relations, says the company expects applicants to answer the felony question affirmatively if they have ever been so charged, "regardless of whether [your record] has been expunged or your records are sealed." A "yes" answer leads to a new review process that includes more extensive background checks, Supic says.

As a trainee, Dixon wasn't being paid by Primerica, but he was helping the firm recruit prospective salespeople and potential clients at seminars and job fairs. He also had a "solution number" that gave him access to internal Primerica resources and information. "How can I not be a representative of the company if I'm hosting job fairs and I'm inviting people to business briefings?" he says.

Karen Laws, a youth-services-program coordinator at Goodwill Services--where Dixon attained his high school equivalency, and which sponsored the job fair that hooked him up with Primerica--calls the firm's action "highly questionable." She says Goodwill invites companies both with and without felony policies to its job fairs, because not all program participants have criminal records. But given that Dixon's charges occurred before he was 18, Laws argues, they should be off-limits to employers, policy or not.

Dixon's turnaround has won him recognition from Goodwill, including the Baltimore branch's "excellence award" and a nomination as Goodwill's national Graduate of the Year for 2001. He says he planned to use his Primerica income to fund an organization to help other delinquent youth get a fresh start.

Whether or not Primerica acted appropriately under its own guidelines is only part of the issue, says Lisa Johnson-Peet, volunteer coordinator at the Community Mediation Program. She says Dixon's experience sends the message to former delinquents that making a new start in the mainstream is not only hard, but unlikely.

"I felt bad for [Dixon] that he had extended himself in that way [by going public with his story] and that happened to him," Johnson-Peet says. "Marcus really has turned himself around. . . . What a terrible, terrible lesson for him to learn."

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More from Molly Rath

Bare Market (2/20/2002)
Heeding Customer Complaints, Health Department Shuts Down Oft-Cited Grocery

Shackled (2/6/2002)
Why Maryland's Juvenile-Justice System Is Set Up to Fail Baltimore's Poor Young Men

Shackled (1/30/2002)
Why Maryland's Juvenile-Justice System is Set Up to Fail Baltimore's Poor Young Men

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