By Charles Hallman
One in six Black Minnesotans cannot vote because they are either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Even after they are released from prison, many ex-offenders find their transition back into society difficult at best. A coalition of state organizations is pressing for legislation to ease that transition and provide a real second chance for those want to make up for past mistakes.
According to Emerge Northside Job Connections Program Manager Marvin Clark, if a person stays clean for a number of years, their conviction record should be permanently sealed “so that people aren’t continually prosecuted for yesterday’s problems.”
Instead, it’s a “lifetime conviction,” he notes. “If people have paid their debts to society and completed their parole, then allow them the same rights that everyone else gets. It seems like in America, once you’ve committed a crime it’s a lifetime sentence.”
“When you put people in positions where they don’t have options, they have to survive like everyone else,” adds RS Eden President Dan Cain, whose office works with ex-offenders among others. “To not create a path to redemption for people who have made poor choices seems to me to be decidedly un-Christian.”
Says Andre Corbet, who counsels ex-offenders at Ujamaa Place in St. Paul, “I would say that for everybody coming out [of prison], the motivation to succeed is there for the first month or two. Then they try to find a house, a job, or try to navigate through…getting the runaround, and it becomes frustrating. A lot of guys don’t know how to deal with that frustration and end up going back to the things they used to do.”
Clark, Cain and Corbet all plan to participate in the Second Chance Day on the Hill at the State Capitol at 10 am on January 26. It is sponsored by a coalition of over 50 local and regional organizations, including Emerge, RS Eden and Ujamaa Place.
Participants will meet with state legislators to present legislative proposals to, for example, restore voting rights to individuals with felony convictions, “ban-the-box” that private employers use to identify ex-offenders on employment applications, and limit juvenile criminal record access for youth whose charges were either dismissed or reduced to something other than a felony.
A “collateral sanction” is defined as a legal penalty, disability or disadvantage that is imposed on a person automatically when that person is convicted of or found to have committed a crime, even if the sanction is not included in the sentence. Such sanctions are placed on jobs such as teaching, nursing, and, according to Cain, even “shoveling manure at Canterbury Downs, because there’s gambling on site.”
Cain, who served time in prison and was released in 1972, notes that Minnesota has over 200 “collateral sanctions” that affect ex-offenders. “We’ve widened the net” to restrict virtually all ex-offenders, regardless of their crimes, from many jobs, he points out.
“I did 3½ years in [prison] from age 21 until I was 24,” admits Corbet. “I did armed robbery and [got] charged with two others that I did not do. I pled guilty to the one I did, and to the other two I went to a jury trial and lost, and ended pleading guilty to the other one.”
After his release from prison several years ago, “I went on a few interviews and got a job within two weeks at this telemarketing place,” continues Corbet, who also entered a job training program and later joined Ujamaa Place. Although he has been “gainfully employed” for almost five years, Corbet adds that there are some who still can’t get past his past.
“I was looking for another part-time job last summer, and I went to this company,” he recalls. “I told them my background and had letters of recommendation, and went through three rounds of interviews.” When he later followed up with the prospective employer, the company told him that they couldn’t hire him because of his record.
“I’m 15 years to the good,” says Clark, who also is an ex-offender. “I work with ex-offenders, whether they’re federal, state or county, to help them put their lives back together. Our main objective here [at Emerge] is to work with them to become gainfully employed. We teach people how to answer that question: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’”
Cain says he believes that since his release from prison over three decades ago, he has shown that he can be a valuable member of society. However, he duly admits that is not always the case for Black ex-offenders, who also should be allowed to show that they “do rise up over their past.”
“If one in four African American men between the ages of 18 and 25 has a criminal record, then [they] can’t compete [for jobs],” he points out. “When a simple fact of an arrest shows up on a database where someone does a background check, then that person invariably will have a difficult time getting a job. You may not be convicted, but still your name goes into a database as someone who has been arrested.”
Among the changes Cain would like to see is regulating companies that do background checks. “A whole [unregulated] industry has sprung up. It used to be to get a criminal record you had to go to the BCA [the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension] or the FBI. Now [an employer] can go to any one of a number of private, for-profit corporations,” he says.
“An individual’s criminal record does not define that individual,” says Clark, who wants employers to look at ex-offenders “at face value, and not at what they’ve done in the past.”
The Second Chance Day is intended to show state lawmakers that ex-offenders deserve a second chance to become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, says Sarah Walker, chief operating officer of 180 Degrees, Inc. in Minneapolis and a member of the Second Chance Coalition. “This is an issue that affects our economy and everyone,” she says.
“This rally is not just about people coming out of prison,” says Corbet, “but [also] about everyone who is affected by crime.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Is to Mr Marvin Clark. My brother Reginald Bruce Long attended your Poower of People classes and graduated. He is currently in jail in Stillwater and is being badly treated, and not getting his meds etc. He is needing some help because he is not getting his meds, etc. I can’t go into all the details because it’s is a lot. Please contact me because he has no representative, and I don’t know what all that I can do because I live in KCK. Thank you. Tanya Long I hope you can help.