Criminal justice advocates push lawmakers for ‘second chance’ policies to help formerly incarcerated people — NC Health News

Criminal justice advocates push lawmakers for 'second chance' policies to help formerly incarcerated people — NC Health News

By Rachel Crumpler

Jessie Thomas is working to become a substance abuse counselor so she can help others who are where she once was. She has completed 74 hours of classes to obtain her peer support certification. 

Recently, she hit a barrier in her quest for a new career: Thomas is a convicted felon. She was released from prison in November after serving almost six years. But even though she’s done her time, she still has to jump through a multitude of hoops to achieve her career goal — if it’s possible at all. 

Thousands of dollars in court fines and fees hang over her head. She also has thousands of dollars worth of “drug taxes” to pay: taxes levied on the value of illegal drugs a person possessed when they were arrested. To add to her burden, that balance accrued interest while she was still incarcerated, and it is still climbing.

She lives in a transitional house in Buncombe County and has a job that allows her to meet her needs, but her footing is still precarious and she fears what would happen if she got sick or injured and could no longer afford food. As it stands now, Thomas would be denied SNAP benefits — previously known as food stamps — based on her drug felony conviction.

Jessie Thomas and Chrystal Hopley travelled from Buncombe County to Raleigh for Second Chance Lobby Day. They both have criminal records and advocated for policy changes that could make establishing a life back in society less challenging. Credit: Rose Hoban

Some days, Thomas said, it feels like the deck is stacked against her and other people with criminal records.

“No matter what changes I ever make, my past will always show up,” Thomas said.

Policy changes could reduce a number of barriers to successful reentry that formerly incarcerated people face — changes hundreds of members of the NC Second Chance Alliance came to Raleigh to advocate for earlier this month.

People impacted by the criminal justice system and their families descended on the state legislature from Charlotte, Asheville, Wilmington and many more cities to share their stories with lawmakers on Second Chance Lobby Day

“They need to hear the real-life stories,” said Diana Powell, statewide outreach coordinator for NC Second Chance Alliance. “You can be so high that you don’t see what’s really going on with boots on the ground and how, when they make laws, it affects lives.”

Making their voices heard

In North Carolina, an estimated 2 million people have criminal records — most containing misdemeanor convictions that don’t come with jail or prison time. 

More than 30,000 people are in the North Carolina prison system; about 15,000 of them return to the community each year after being released. An unknown number in the thousands cycle in and out of the state’s county jails every year. Those facilities are run by county sheriffs, and with less statewide reporting of statistics, it’s hard to know the total number.

Powell said this justice-involved population is often overlooked. However, they collectively showed up at the capitol wearing bright white and yellow T-shirts with the words “I am for second chances” to make their voices heard. 

This year, the NC Second Chance Alliance advocated for seven legislative priorities:

  • Expanding the ability for people with criminal records to have those records expunged or relieved
  • Abolishing the drug tax
  • Repealing the ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for people with drug felony convictions
  • Ending harmful use of mugshots
  • Ending driver’s license suspensions based on outstanding court fines and fees
  • Eliminating/reducing criminal court fines and fees
  • Increasing state budget allocations for reentry services

Members of the alliance discussed these legislative goals and the way current policies prevent many individuals with criminal records from becoming productive citizens during a news conference on May 2. They spent the day knocking on lawmakers’ doors and having conversations with members of the House and Senate to support specific bills introduced this legislative session that address their policy priorities.

A Black man in a baseball cap behind a podium speaks about the needs for policy chances to support "second chances"
Dennis Gaddy, one of the founders of NC Second Chance Alliance who spent time incarcerated, spoke about the need for policy changes to support “second chances” for people with criminal records at a news conference on May 2. “I had the good fortune to have a support group on the outside that wrapped their arms around me and allowed me to bounce back to life again but I saw a lot of people who were coming home that were not so fortunate,” he said. Credit: Rose Hoban

“We believe that our communities are safer when all of us have access to the resources and the opportunities that we need to move past our mistakes and take care of ourselves and our loved ones,” said Whitley Carpenter, senior criminal justice counsel and policy manager at Forward Justice, during the news conference. Forward Justice is a nonpartisan law and policy center in Durham working to advance racial, social and economic justice in the South.

Targeting policy change

Dennis Gaddy, one of the founders of NC Second Chance Alliance, spent five years and eight months incarcerated. He’s spent almost two decades since then working with people coming home from prison and jail. 

Gaddy said during the news conference that he’s seen the plethora of challenges people encounter when reentering the community — barriers that can be too difficult for some to overcome. That’s why he’s been tirelessly advocating for policy changes for all those years. 

NC Second Chance Alliance started in 2004 with a group of about six people, Gaddy said. They knew it was important to push for policy change, not to just focus on efforts to provide direct services like jobs and housing.

Over the years, Gaddy said there’s been more momentum to address challenges associated with having a criminal record and reentering society. 

“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a word called reentry,” Gaddy said. “It was just lock them up and throw away the key.”

Gaddy said the first Second Chance Lobby Day was in 2011 and had about 200 participants. In the years since, more people have joined the advocacy day, and NC Second Chance Alliance has expanded into a statewide coalition of people with criminal records, their family members, service providers, congregations and community leaders.

Powell estimated that 800 people attended this year. The event came on the heels of a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling in Community Success Initiative v. Moore that stripped recently gained voting rights from thousands of North Carolinians with prior convictions. Last year, a Superior Court in Wake County had ruled to restore the right to vote of more than 56,000 people on probation and parole ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, but with the new state supreme court ruling, that ability evaporated. 

Gaddy, the executive director of Community Success Initiative and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he would not be deterred by the regression and remains committed to “unlock that vote.” 

Despite the setback, Powell said the NC Second Chance Alliance’s advocacy has helped contribute to some progress, notably the passage of the Second Chance Act in 2020. The bipartisan legislation unanimously passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Cooper automated the expungement of certain dismissed or “not guilty” criminal charges and expanded the types of offenses eligible for expungement after a certain amount of time of good behavior.

Bipartisan support for several bills

Members of the alliance are eager for more policy changes that could improve the lives of individuals with criminal records, though they realize building enough support can be a slow process.

Several of the bills introduced this legislative session addressing the group’s priorities have bipartisan support. Garnering support among Republican lawmakers is vital due to the party’s supermajority in both chambers.

Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Asheville) is the primary sponsor, along with two Republicans, of Senate Bill 730, which would repeal North Carolina’s six-month minimum SNAP and TANF benefit exclusion for individuals convicted of drug-related felonies. Over half of states have already fully opted out of the felony drug SNAP ban.

“Having access to healthy food is critical for a successful life,” Mayfield said. “If we really care about helping folks get out of the cycle of poverty and crime and jail, then we will provide them with these benefits and allow them to live, allow them to be healthy enough to get and keep a job and to take care of their families and to be productive, successful members of our community.”

A black wearing an "I am for second chances" T-shirt stands behind a podium about reentry challenges
Brent Bailey, coordinator of the Buncombe Country Reentry Council, spoke at a news conference about reentry challenges. Credit: Rose Hoban

Brent Bailey, coordinator of Buncombe County’s Local Reentry Council, was formerly incarcerated with a drug felony. He said the logic of the current exclusion is backward. 

“It seems like you might approve somebody coming out of prison and maybe reassess the need in six months, hoping that they have elevated themselves and begun to prosper and no longer need that assistance,” he said.

Bailey was directly affected by the policy, and he said he sees the despair when the people he serves — newly released from jail and prison — are denied SNAP benefits based on their drug-related conviction. The exclusion makes reentry even harder, he said, and he views it as “one of the last relics left over from the war on drugs.”

House Bill 888, which would end the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for unpaid traffic-related fines and fees or for missed court dates, has 27 sponsors. Two are Republicans, including Jason Saine, who is a powerful senior member of the House budget committee.

Chrystal Hopley has experienced the challenge of navigating life without a driver’s license. When she was released from prison in October, she applied for her license right away. More than six months later, she still doesn’t have her license because she owes more than $2,000 in fees. 

Hopley said not having her license has made it difficult to maintain consistent work. She’s been able to, she said, because people have given her rides. But, she added, that’s a lot to ask.

Senate Bill 104, which has four Republican sponsors, would make law enforcement mugshots confidential, rather than public record. 

Sangria Noble, incarcerated from 2006 to 2009, supports this change. At the May 2 news conference, she said that even 14 years after her release, her mug shot is still easy to find on the internet, where her children can look at it. 

Only two of the 10 bills the NC Second Chance Alliance advocated for this legislative session got through the necessary votes to stay alive before the “crossover” deadline earlier this month — one related to expungements and another eliminating driver’s license suspensions imposed for certain crimes. Once the crossover deadline passed without movement on the other bills, they lost their ability to be enacted this legislative session, which lasts until summer 2024. 

Still, members of the NC Second Chance Alliance are determined. They said they will keep showing up to advocate at the General Assembly until all their legislative priorities are addressed.

Two women hold second chance advocacy day materials
Comencita Powell (right), who has a criminal record, holds up Second Chance Lobby Day advocacy materials inside the state legislative building. She showed up to advocate for better policy. “These inmates that’s coming out of jail — they’re looking at it like, ‘I get a second chance at life,’” she said. “But in reality, they’re not getting that second chance at life.” Credit: Rose Hoban

“We are hopeful that the will of the people will prevail — that the voices of the people will be heard and that folks will understand the importance of policies that support second chances,” said Brittany Cheatham, senior communications manager at Forward Justice, who attended the lobby day. “You can’t send people back out into the community and not give them the resources, the connection, the leverage that they need to be able to come home and successfully reintegrate into society.”

NC Health News Editor Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Source link