It wasn’t as if Sandra Johnson, 62, could forget she had a criminal record.
There was the strained relationship with her family. The loneliness of living in a city where she knew no one, a decision she made to avoid falling into bad habits that could threaten her freedom. And there was that dreaded box on the dozens and dozens of job applications she’d filled out over the years — the box that asked if she had a criminal record, the box she answered truthfully, the box she knew was the reason no one called her back for an interview.
But for just a little while, every now and then, she’d have a fleeting-but-wonderful moment when she forgot about that part of her past. She finally landed a job at a paratransit company, and for six years, she showed up to work every day. She worked 11-hour shifts and even weekends when asked, became employee of the month and driver of the year, had no disciplinary issues. She saved and saved and eventually was able to get an apartment in Oakland, taking Bay Area Rapid Transit to and from her San Francisco job.
Then one day, her boss called her in to his office and fired her, saying she had failed her background test. The company’s ownership had changed hands, and though she had disclosed her record when she was hired years before, this time the box won.
“When I lost my job, it was devastating,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ I was used to structure, getting up in the morning, working all day, coming home, going to bed. I didn’t know nobody in the city except the people I worked with.
“Here I am trying to be a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen and … I couldn’t believe it. When they fired me, I felt marred or something, like something was wrong with me, kind of like I almost forgot about being in jail, I forgot about being in prison — I was doing the right thing.”
Johnson is far from alone. Most people with criminal records in this country share those same feelings: the desire to put the past behind them after they’ve paid their dues and the gut-punch when society tells them that’s not going to happen.
In America today, there are tens of thousands of restrictions imposed on people with criminal records, each one a barrier for those trying to build a better life and stay out of the prison system. Known as “collateral consequences,” these barriers pop up when they’re applying for jobs, renting homes, enrolling in classes, even volunteering at their children’s schools.
“The mental anguish that people deal with is real,” said Sheena Meade, managing director of the Clean Slate Initiative, which supports state and federal efforts to automate record clearance and of which Arnold Ventures is a member. “They’ve already been traumatized and caught up in the system, but then they want to move on with their life and not have to keep reliving something they have done their time for and paid the price for. They want to provide for their families and not have that stigma.”
In an effort to give those with records a true second chance, criminal justice reform advocates like Meade are lobbying lawmakers, filing lawsuits, launching campaigns, and plying business owners with data to show that not only do many people with convictions do well when given a chance — they thrive.
To shine a light on these efforts and fund promising reforms, Arnold Ventures is formally launching its own portfolio devoted to reintegration. It’s critical, leaders say, to eliminate collateral consequences and create more opportunities for people to put the past behind them.
“We as a field need greater visibility into the complicated web of collateral consequences, analysis of which barriers cause the most harm, and campaigns in states to advance meaningful and sustainable reforms,” said Amy Solomon, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures and former executive director of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. “A criminal record should not serve as a permanent scarlet letter or a barrier to full participation in our communities.”
‘This System Is Not Set Up for Success’
It is estimated that there are 45,000 collateral consequences across the country for those with records — including an astonishing 29,000 related to employment.
Jerry Blassingame encountered many of them after his first run-in with the law in his early 20s. No one cared that his drug conviction stemmed from a childhood filled with trauma, that at the age of five he heard the gunshot that killed his mother in the next room, that his love for school and the college scholarship he earned weren’t enough to offset the lesson he learned in the streets: that the only way out of poverty was to sell drugs.
All the world knew was that he had a record, and that meant he faced barriers at every turn:
He couldn’t go back to college because he needed financial aid, and Pell Grants weren’t an option now that he had a drug conviction.
He had a part-time job, but it didn’t pay well enough to provide for his wife and three kids. And because he was on five years’ probation, he often had to leave work to report to his probation officer — which didn’t sit well with his employer.
His driver’s license was suspended as a result of the conviction, so he had no way to get to work. Greenville, South Carolina, didn’t have a reliable transportation system, and the two gas vouchers he received when he left prison didn’t cut it.
With all those strikes against him, Blassingame quit his job and went back to dealing drugs full-time. Six months later, he was arrested again — and sentenced to 20 years.
Today, Blassingame, 53, runs the nonprofit Soteria Community Development Corporation, which helps people coming out of prison in South Carolina with housing and jobs and other support. The idea for the organization came to him while he was serving his sentence, which was eventually dropped to three and a half years.
“All of the other men I would talk to, we all had the same story,” he said. “They would tell me that they were doing their second and third and fourth sentence because they couldn’t find a job, they couldn’t find housing. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Nobody’s doing something; I have to do something.’ Because so many of these young men are continuing to go to prison, and it’s not getting better.”
Meade’s first brush with the damaging effects of collateral consequences — and how hard it is for many people with convictions to reenter society upon release — was when she was a classification clerk working in a maximum-security prison in Florida. An older man who was up for parole questioned the value of being released; he told her he didn’t have anything to go home to, didn’t believe he would be able to find a job or adequate housing, and felt there was more of a sense of community in the prison where he was incarcerated than there would be at home.
“It bothered me that somebody would feel like prison was a better option than being on the outside,” Meade said.
It bothered me that somebody would feel like prison was a better option than being on the outside.Sheena Meade Managing director of the Clean Slate Initiative
Then there was the prison trustee who, upon seeing Meade come through the door to start her shift each day, would call her by name and proudly mention how many days he had left on his sentence. He’d say, “Only got 100 days left!” and “90 days left!” and tell her about all the things he’d do when he got home. Two or three months after he was released, Meade read in an article that the man was killed robbing a convenience store with a toy gun.
“I could only think, this young man was so excited about leaving, what made him go home and try to rob somebody? … Was he not rehabilitated?” she said. “I started to understand how this system is not set up for success. This young man didn’t have that support to reenter. You come home, you have to check a box, you can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, and because you have a conviction, you’re at the bottom of the social barrel.”
Heartland Alliance, an Arnold Ventures grantee based in Chicago that is working on a campaign to end the “permanent punishments” people with criminal records face, recently tallied just how many there are in Illinois alone — its first step in working to dismantle them. The results, published in last summer’s report “Never Fully Free,” list 1,189 unique laws in Illinois that impact people’s access to housing, employment, education, and more.
“We always had the anecdotal information, the stories from individuals, but what we didn’t have was hard data to supplement those anecdotes,” said Carlton Mayers II, senior policy manager for criminal legal reform at Heartland Alliance.
And now they do. Data that not only shows how deep the restrictions infiltrate the lives of those with records but how they disproportionately affect people of color. Black people make up only 13.8 percent of Illinois’ adult population but 28.9 percent of its arrests and 45.3 percent of its felony convictions, which means the legal barriers associated with a criminal record have an outsized impact on the Black community.
“To have the mark, if you will, of a felony conviction, you become completely disenfranchised,” said Christian Friend, chief impact officer at Heartland Alliance. “It creates this psychosocial barrier, like, ‘I’m not a part of this society.’ So part of what we’re doing is elevating their voices, saying, you are fully included, number one, and number two, there doesn’t have to be a stigma attached.”
Heartland Alliance is using its wealth of data to draft legislation to repeal as many of the Illinois laws as possible. And while its work is state-specific, it plans on sharing the model with advocates in other states looking to pass reform.
Seeing the hundreds of laws laid out in the report, Mayers wasn’t surprised that the majority of them — 982 — had to do with employment. But what did surprise him was the barrier that barred people with convictions from participating in their child’s PTA.
“Those kinds of permanent punishments really shocked us, because it just didn’t make any sense,” Mayers said. “How is somebody having a criminal record from their past — that they’ve already served time for, they’ve already paid restitution for — prevented from participating in their child’s education?”
But it happens. When Blassingame’s three youngest children were in elementary school, he was named PTA president. A background check run by the school district, however, nearly curtailed his involvement: His conviction, they said, meant he couldn’t work in the volunteer group. Eventually, because of his standing in the community, he was able to keep his position, but he was flagged again for the same issue when his children were in middle school.
For Jason Bell, a fight at a barbecue when was 20 years old resulted in a criminal conviction that continues to haunt him and his family. He doesn’t even bother trying to be a chaperone on his children’s school field trips. Because of the disclosure forms he’d have to fill out, he leaves that role to his wife.
“I don’t even want to get into it,” said Bell, who today represents the California consortium Project Rebound — which helps people with convictions get a college education — as its director of program development for the state. “I’m not comfortable sharing with them because I don’t want people to take it out on my kids.”
Putting in the Work
With so many collateral consequences acting against them, many people with records become practically paralyzed with fear — worried that one unintentional slip-up could send them back to prison when all they want to do is lead a better life.
When Bell was incarcerated, he watched the revolving door of people leaving and returning — rarely because they had committed a new offense but more often because they violated parole, sometimes for something as unavoidable as going home to their old neighborhood, which happened to be a known drug area.
“I was disillusioned and fearful because I was doing time in the heart of the warehousing era where I’d see people paroled and come back twice,” Bell said. “I was like, damn, can I even make it out there?”
For the first two weeks after his release, he often stayed inside his home, worried he’d somehow get a violation if he stepped out the front door.
That was the same reason Sandra Johnson vowed not to return to her hometown of Seaside, California, when she was released from prison for the last time in 2009. Prior to that, she had been in and out of the prison system for 15 years.
In a substance-abuse program inside prison during her last stay, she was reminded that if you keep going back to the same place, the same thing is going to happen. So when she got out, she moved to San Francisco — where she knew no one — and “switched over my determination to finding drugs to finding help for myself.”
That determination grew into a strong work ethic for every job she has held — and is what led to that employee of the month title at the paratransit company and the many job referrals she’s received since.
Inclusive Hiring Helps the Bottom Line
Like Johnson, data shows that when people who leave prison are given the opportunity to work, they may be less likely to commit another crime. In fact, many tend to work harder, stay at companies longer, and have high rates of promotion.
A 2016 Northwestern study found that employees with criminal records have a much longer tenure and are less likely to quit their jobs voluntarily than other workers. And a 2018 study of enlistees in the U.S. military showed that people with felony backgrounds were no more likely to exit their jobs because of poor performance than those without criminal records. In fact, those with records tended to be promoted quicker and to higher ranks than other enlistees.
This is the data that Matt Joyce pulls out when he approaches businesses about making their hiring practices more inclusive. Through his work with the Levelset initiative, an Arnold Ventures grantee, Joyce connects employers to a talent pool that has been waiting on the sidelines for decades: people with criminal records.
“We want to make sure that people realize from the start that the research out there, at minimum, is showing that employees with past convictions aren’t more problematic, aren’t leaving at a faster rate, and, in fact, a lot of the research is showing better outcomes,” said Joyce, a founder and partner at the consulting firm Envoy Growth Advisory, which has partnered with the Center for Employment Opportunities for the Levelset initiative. “So if we can ground this work in the research and what we know versus perception of risk, it starts the work off in a better place.”
That work centers on Levelset helping employers review their hiring policies — including applications, assessments, and interview guidelines — and encouraging the removal of antiquated barriers, thereby making jobs more accessible to people with criminal records. Levelset also partners with organizations that work with formerly incarcerated people to recruit employees for these companies.
Joyce asks businesses to dig deeper into their current policies to see which specific convictions may be disqualified and have a conversation about what it is about that conviction that disqualifies someone from a job.
“The more you start to look at it from the lens of ‘How does the conviction affect the person’s potential performance in the job’ versus just the fear and anxiety about the conviction itself, I think it makes companies start to look at those disqualifications differently,” he said.
While support for reducing employment barriers has grown over the past few years, some companies remain apprehensive about taking what they perceive to be a risk, Joyce said. But as soon as Levelset starts the work — and the companies see that this new pool of talent is succeeding and advancing and getting promoted — those fears typically dissipate.
Take Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits. When the fast-food restaurant chain’s investors Mike and Sukey Novogratz came to Billy Watterson — who is executive director of the couple’s criminal justice reform philanthropy Galaxy Gives — and expressed an interest in starting a fair chance hiring program at Bojangles, Watterson jumped at the chance to help and brought Levelset into the fold.
In 2019, Bojangles launched a second chance hiring pilot. The pilot program created an expanded candidate pool for team member and managerial positions. Bojangles’ in-depth interview assessments, a tool built in partnership with Levelset, helped them to identify and select high quality candidates inclusive of people with criminal backgrounds who fit their cultural values of trust, promise, inclusion, leadership, and hospitality.
It wasn’t long before Bojangles saw positive results: a dramatic increase in employee retention among the pilot group and motivation by its employees with records to move up in the workforce and take on managerial positions.
When the pilot program was first pitched to eight Charlotte restaurants, Joyce and Watterson were unsure if the restaurant managers would be receptive. Turned out, they were that and more.
“They were so excited because they work in the communities and live in the communities that are hard hit by mass incarceration,” Watterson said. “One store manager got up and started crying because she has family members involved in the justice system and she saw this as such a massive opportunity to help folks like her family members.”
The program isn’t just about hiring those with records — it’s about giving them the tools to help them succeed. Joyce and Watterson met with state and local governments, workforce boards, community organizations, even the local sheriff, to get as many folks as possible on board. With that buy-in, the N.C. Department of Public Safety agreed to assign one single parole officer to everyone in the pilot so there was a single point of contact — which is helpful to both employer and employee.
As Levelset continues to encourage businesses to open their doors to change, it is also working on building a best-practices hiring guide and offering tools that can serve as a roadmap for other employers. Joyce knows getting more buy-in from businesses is critical to lifting one of the heaviest burdens people with convictions face.
“You can do a whole variety of supports to help people successfully reconnect with community and get the training they need and the supports they need,” Joyce said, “but ultimately, if there’s not a job at the back end of that, it’s hard to be successful.”
Leading by Example
Key to getting business owners and legislators to see the value in eliminating these barriers is changing the narrative — knocking down the preconceived ideas people have about those with records.
“They want to have a job, they want to feel good about themselves and know they’re earning money and that people around them respect them,” said Mayers of Heartland Alliance. “And they also want to be able to provide for their families and their children.”
One of the best ways to change the narrative is to have the people most affected by criminal justice barriers be the ones at the megaphones.
“It’s dire. It’s a key component,” said Bell of Project Rebound on the need for people closest to the problem to be the leaders of the movement. “It’s almost like the secret sauce in a lot of ways because, oftentimes, we just get disheartened that there aren’t possibilities beyond this world we get stuck in. … It’s important to see and check in with folks who can say, ‘This is how I navigated my journey, and this is a recipe that works.’”
For Bell, the man with the recipe was his mentor, John Irwin, the founder of Project Rebound. When Bell was in a California prison in the 1990s, he sought out help to better himself and stumbled upon the program at San Francisco State University. Inspired, Bell started taking correspondence courses behind bars, all the while learning about Irwin, who built Project Rebound after serving a prison sentence for armed robbery.
Bell saw hope in Irwin’s story. “He was like a hero of mine.”
After Bell left prison in 2001, he immediately enrolled in college through Project Rebound. Two years later, he began an internship at the organization. And in 2005, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in sociology, Bell became Rebound’s second full-time program director — following in the footsteps of his mentor and continuing to pass down that “secret sauce” recipe to others seeking guidance.
Like Bell, Blassingame of South Carolina also found his leadership potential while serving his prison sentence.
Every day for three and a half years, he mapped out his plan to help those who were coming out of incarceration reenter society and become productive citizens. It would be called Soteria — the Greek word for salvation.
“I thought about it all the time,” Blassingame said. “I would dream about it. I would journal about it. And I knew that we needed something that was started by people who had been incarcerated. Even back then, I knew the only way that we’re going to fix the problem was those of us who are impacted by the system, we had to be in leadership positions.”
While Sandra Johnson struggled every step of the way after she got out of prison — with housing, employment, and the draining stigma of her record — today she is living out her dream of working with incarcerated people and helping them see that there’s hope.
“I want people to understand that no matter how hard it is out here, you can make it, you just can’t give up,” said Johnson, the in-prison programs coordinator for Root & Rebound, an Arnold Ventures grantee in California, where she helps incarcerated women plan for successful reentry. “Believe me, a lot of times I started to give up. It was easier for me to sell dope.”
But it was her network that got her through — her mentors and therapists and people who let her vent. She also found an outlet in getting her education, graduating from City College in 2018 thanks to its Second Chance program. She’d watch private school kids breeze through class while she, in her late 50s, got marked-up English papers. But she refused to quit.
“I’ve worked hard,” Johnson said, “so today it’s not an option to give up.”
The Reintegration team welcomes your comments and ideas as they shape their work. Please email at email@example.com.
A criminal record should not result in a life sentence to poverty or the inability of a person to care for themself and their family, and move forward.Learn More