Those who went to school with him knew Richard Johnson as a breakdancing pioneer and one of the first students who excelled in the Orange County High School JROTC program.
Those who served under him as he rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army knew him as Maj. Johnson.
Young musicians and partygoers know him as the DJ and co-owner of Hit the Deck Entertainment.
And now everyone knows him as Dr. Richard Johnson, PhD.
Jan. 27, 2019, Johnson, an Orange native and Orange County High School graduate, graduated from Wilmington University in Wilmington, Del. with a doctor of business administration, successfully completing his dissertation on “Employer Willingness to Hire Individuals Convicted of Drug Crimes in Central Virginia.”
“I had been working with some guys who were ex-convicts and we had conversations about how they were having struggles with getting jobs and getting a foot in the door with their criminal records,” Johnson, 49, said. “I’ve done business with them—events where we’re bringing in $25,000 cash and they worked the door and nothing’s missing—and either I’m a genius or I’m lucky. Something’s not right.”
Johnson soon realized that people were judging those with drug convictions unfairly.
“Maybe they’re not career criminals, but people who made mistakes?” he theorized. “Would the research show they are good guys who made some bad decisions?”
It turns out, yes.
In surveying large and small employers throughout Orange, Madison, Culpeper, Nelson, Louisa and Albemarle counties, as well as the City of Charlottesville, Johnson found that 53 percent of those employers who responded would be willing to hire people previously convicted of drug offenses.
He hopes his research will be applicable to other rural communities throughout the country in an effort to enlighten, educate and employ.
“I developed a methodology to try to minimize that gap between the population that said it would never hire a person with a criminal record and the ones that would,” he said. “I want to increase the number of employers who would be willing to hire those who do.”
Johnson also is working on a program to increase convicts’ skill sets through education to reintegrate them into society, while educating employers that they’re missing out on viable employees.
“I want to remove some of the fear factor and stigma of hiring those who have been convicted,” he said. “Those who have checked that ‘have you been convicted of a crime’ box on their application—if they get to the interview, they have a 17 percent chance of getting the job,” he said. “They get a chance to explain their case and the circumstance. That’s beneficial not just to the possible employee, but also the employer. And, society in general.”
Johnson’s research showed 70 % of those released annually from prison are reincarcerated within three years. That figure is understandable, he said, particularly if they can’t get jobs.
“We’re talking about non-violent offenders,” he clarified. “But if we look at it logically, if they’re working and contributing to society and not in prison, it’s beneficial to all of us.”
While he’s identified the tangible elements of his research, he’s also concerned about the inspirational ones.
“I did this because I was seeking knowledge,” he said, “but I also wanted to show those kids in my hometown that if I can do this, so can you. There are a lot of stereotypes of black folks and poor people and small-town people,” he said. “A lot of people think we’ll never amount to anything and some of that is self-fulfilling. But when I joined the Army, I realized no one cared about where you came from or how you looked or who you are if you could produce.”
Comparing his 23-year active duty military career to his four-year doctoral study, Johnson admitted his ultimate academic pursuit was more mentally draining than his Army duty.
“As a soldier, I had training for that,” he acknowledged. “There was no training for this dissertation!” Still, he said the mental and physical toughness gleaned from a military career was applicable to his academic pursuits. And he credited his time in the JROTC as the foundation of that toughness.
“My time in the OCHS JROTC changed my life,” he declared. “They treated us like adults. I carried the lessons I learned there directly to my whole military life.”
Completing a successful military career (having served in Haiti, the Middle East, Korea and Iraq), and earning his bachelor’s, his master’s and now his doctoral degree, Johnson said he’s ready for something a little less stressful.
“I’m taking a photography class,” he laughs. “I need a break! I’m recording entertainers and how they got into the business and asking them their stories.” He hopes to make documentaries, particularly of those who make music in central Virginia.
He’s also working on forming a nonprofit that helps people with drug convictions reintegrate into society.
“I just want to leave the world a better place than I found it,” he concluded.
Artist, soldier, advocate. Done.