The recent dismissal by the Pleasant Plains, Ark., school board, under pressure from local citizens, of its new school superintendent, Doug Adams, because Adams is an ex-felon, dramatically calls attention to what is often the most difficult problem ex-convicts face. Having paid their debt to society, they seem nevertheless doomed to a second purgatory in which they meet only occupational prejudice, distrust, and disrespect from private employers, civil service officials, bonding companies, and licensing boards.
Adams was convicted of defrauding the bank of which he was an officer. The fact that he turned himself in counted for nothing in the school board's deliberations. Never mind that he had served his prison term. Neither his master's degree nor his experience as basketball coach, mathematics teacher, school counselor, and school superintendent in neighboring communities counted. In the words of a Pleasant Plains parent, ''When you're dealing with your children, a felon should be a felon.''
Throughout the decade of the '70s, there was a slight liberalizing breeze blowing away prejudices. Only a few ragged remnants of the old civil death statutes - blanket provisions by which criminals were declared civilly dead and which could keep them from inheriting property and even invalidate marriages in some states - remain on the books. The federal civil service has broadened its definition of suitability in the hiring of ex-offenders.
Several state legislatures passed laws declaring that a prior felony conviction could not alone bar an applicant from state employment or from obtaining an occupational or professional license unless his or her crime had a direct relationship to the job for which the application was submitted. A child molester, for example, could be turned down as a school bus driver but could get a license as a junk dealer.
The reality, however, does not always coincide with legislative intention. For example: Nearly all those states which liberalized their civil service and licensing requirements excluded peace officers. When Dennis Hetherington, previously convicted of grand theft and bad check writing and paroled from prison some years before, applied for a position as a counselor with the California Youth Authority, it was discovered that certain positions, including that of counselor, fell into the category of peace officer - as did such unrelated positions as bedding inspector, health investigator, membership on the California Horse Racing Board, and some 100 other categories of state employees.
That Hetherington had lived an exemplary life for a decade, had obtained a certificate of rehabilitation, supported his family, and been employed counted for nothing. His application was rejected. Commented the single dissenter to the court's ruling: ''To a youth who has broken the law, an ex-felon, particularly a person like Hetherington, can be exemplary in the most meaningful sense. He can demonstrate to troubled youth that they can succeed in changing their life styles and constructively channel their efforts.''
Questions of our capacity to forgive aside, the prejudices, official and unofficial, against those who theoretically have done their time, paid their dues, remain devastating comments on society's confidence in its own attempts at reform and rehabilitation. These prejudices serve, too, on the practical level, to segregate psychologically - and subsequently physically - ex-felons from the community. They might just as well continue to wear prison stripes.
Warren E. Burger, chief justice of the United States, has for many years called for improved occupational training in prisons as a step toward improved employability of released felons and away from the recidivism that haunts us all. His efforts cannot succeed as long as these prejudices force the ex-convict to choose between a life of drudgery and a return to crime.
When Ernest Miranda, of Miranda v. Arizona, whose landmark case established the constitutional rights of suspects in the station house, was paroled in 1972, he was unable to get a job as a barber. Arizona prohibited ex-felons from barbering. That he had earned a high school equivalency degree in prison, had learned his trade, and had cut the warden's hair regularly counted for nothing.
Limited to an occupational life of menial jobs, Miranda drifted into the demimonde of the Phoenix street people, and at the time of his death in 1976, police suspected him of peddling narcotics.
The Doug Adamses, the Dennis Hetheringtons, the Ernest Mirandas - they deserve more, not only for their own sakes, but for ours.