Sheena Meade was just trying to make ends meet. Then a single mom in her 20s who needed to put food on the table and gas in her car, she headed for the grocery store, put some essentials in her cart, and wrote a check for $75, with $10 cash back for gas. The check bounced, and several months later came the knock on her door — two police officers there to place her under arrest.
“I was crying when I got to jail — it was traumatizing for me,” Meade said.
Over the next few years, she’d be arrested two more times, spending at most 24 hours in jail — but those 24 hours were a terrifying experience that had a big impact on her life.
While in jail, Meade would hear women share stories about the traumas they’d faced — being separated from their children, enduring economic hardships, and experiencing so many difficulties reintegrating into their communities that they ended up back in custody.
“So you’re coming home, but you can’t get housing, you can’t feed your children, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t get an education,” she said. “I’ve heard people say their real sentence starts when they come home.”
In an effort to improve her life, Meade decided to enroll in college — and was immediately faced with one of the barriers the women in jail had talked about.
“I remember having to check the box, ‘Have I ever been arrested?’ And that’s a slap in the face,” Meade said. “This was something I forgot about. It was over, I paid them their money back, I did the probation. Yet I had to revisit the stigma, check the box, and track down paperwork. This was something that would come up time and time again, whether it was when I tried to rent a home or when I wanted to volunteer at my child’s school.”
Meade remembers going online to fill out the application to chaperone her children’s field trip to SeaWorld and seeing that box again. “I remember checking the box and then unchecking the box,” Meade said. “Realizing that if I don’t check the box, I don’t want to get in trouble, but if I do and they deny me, what kind of stigma will be placed on my children?”
In the end, she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and closed her browser.
While she couldn’t see it at the time, Meade believes each of those “pain points” in her life brought her closer to her purpose: to use her lived experiences to help others.
Today, the social justice advocate who made a name for herself at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is leading the Clean Slate Initiative, which is scaling up its efforts across the country to push for the automated clearing of criminal records — one of the most powerful remedies for removing barriers to employment for those with convictions.
Clean Slate joins several other campaigns that have launched in recent years to address the stifling number of collateral consequences that those with convictions face after leaving prison. These campaigns are aimed at lawmakers at every level of government as well as the constituents and media whose voices are often the loudest.
“At the end of the day, we have to first get the buy-in from the public on these issues,” said Carlton Mayers II, senior policy manager for criminal legal reform at Heartland Alliance, which is working to repeal the many “permanent punishment” laws in Illinois that restrict people with convictions. “The most successful reentry campaigns I’ve seen are the ones where there’s a lot of emphasis and investment in narrative change and research. When you have that, it allows you to have solid core messaging and you’re able to send a uniform, united message that this is what we’re doing, this is why it’s important, and this is how it impacts you. That is how you change people’s minds.”
From his perspective, Arnold Ventures vice president of criminal justice advocacy James Williams sees this change happening, and he’s hoping Arnold Ventures and its advocacy partners can capitalize on it to drive policy reform. "There's been a sea change in how people of both parties view reintegration policy and the importance of setting up people for success when they leave prison," he said. "The pandemic and economic fallout have only made this work more important, so we're scaling our advocacy efforts in states and at the federal level to meet the moment."
When Jerry Blassingame was in prison in the 1990s, there were no programs that helped people like him find employment and housing once their sentences were up. As a result, he witnessed a revolving door of people leaving and returning to prison because they didn’t have the tools to succeed in a society that branded them criminals.
So after he finished his three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, the South Carolina man got to work setting up a nonprofit that would provide people leaving incarceration with housing, employment, and other resources. By 2004, Blassingame’s organization, Soteria Community Development Corporation, was thriving.
And then it all came to a halt.
He was told that he could no longer run his nonprofit because he was on parole and was not permitted to be around those with criminal records. The only way he could continue his mission was to get a pardon. So he did.
It was surprising, then, when he found himself flagged years later during background checks. “But I have a pardon,” Blassingame would say. That was how he learned that in South Carolina, a pardon didn’t mean his convictions were expunged — and they would continue to follow him around.
The experience prompted the leader to partner with organizations in the state to advocate for an expungement bill. It took years, but in 2018, South Carolina passed legislation to purge certain drug charges and some nonviolent crimes from its records.
The bill did not, however, include pardons. And the expungements are not automated, which means people who might be eligible must take it upon themselves to petition the courts to have their records cleared.
“South Carolina, we’re so far behind the rest of the country,” Blassingame said. “We fought that long just for that bill.”
Most states allow for the expungement or sealing of some types of records, but eight — Alaska, Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Virginia, and Wisconsin — generally don’t permit clearance for convictions, according to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.
And so Blassingame continues to fight for others — and himself.
“We’re trying to say, look, if a person has been out 20 years, and they haven’t recommitted a crime, can you just forgive them?” Blassingame said. Research suggests that would be appropriate, as the chance of reoffending diminishes significantly over time — until people with records are almost statistically indistinguishable from the general population.
“We’re just so far behind, but hopefully we can get some people who understand,” Blassingame said. “And, you know, make sure that people like me and others really have true freedom.”
The Clean Slate Initiative asks states like South Carolina to go a step further: to make the expungement or sealing of records automated.
When record-clearing isn’t automated, people must go through a cumbersome process of petitioning the courts or policymakers to get their record cleared. And most people, research shows, don’t do it or even know it’s an option.
“It takes money, it takes time, sometimes people have to get attorneys, sometimes you can only get one record cleared,” Meade said. “The need for automatically clearing records right now is needed more than ever.”
That’s because background checks are ubiquitous in today’s digital era. Nearly 9 in 10 employers and 4 in 5 landlords use criminal background checks, and any record — even those that didn’t result in a conviction — can be a significant barrier to a person’s ability to gain employment and housing.
The first state to enact clean slate legislation was Pennsylvania in 2018. Since implementation began in mid-2019, 1.1 million people who have been crime-free for 10 years have had their records sealed. Without such legislation, “you turn a brush with the law into a life sentence,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last summer on the one-year anniversary of the clean slate implementation. “And that’s a life sentence where we are going without the contributions that person might have made to our economy.”
A number of states are following in the Keystone State’s footsteps. Utah enacted clean slate legislation in March 2019, and Michigan passed its bill this past October. A number of others have introduced or passed measures that move toward automated record-clearing. And there’s even been interest at the federal level to pass such legislation.
While each state law differs, the types of records that may be eligible for automated clearing range from non-convictions to misdemeanors to nonviolent felonies, and typically clean slate laws apply only to people who have remained crime-free for a certain number of years.
As it ramps up its campaign, the Clean Slate Initiative is partnering with groups on the ground to get legislation passed. It acts as a resource, providing strategies and policy design, helping with implementation, and doing research to document how many people benefit when laws pass. Its implementation process includes making sure people are aware that their records have been cleared; because laws are passed all the time, it’s difficult for people to keep up, and groups need to be creative in the ways they try to reach and notify people, Meade said.
A key part of that, Meade said, is making sure directly impacted people are centered in the campaign’s strategy.
“Sometimes we can do unintentional harm by believing what we’re advocating for is helpful when it could actually do the opposite,” Meade said. “We know that the people closest to the problem are also the closest to the solution.”
Ban the Box
One of the earliest reentry advocacy movements that continues to this day revolves around the box Meade faced when she applied to college — the box that made her revisit a past she had hoped was behind her.
X. knows that feeling. The formerly incarcerated man, who is so haunted by the stigma of his record that he would only agree to be interviewed if he could remain anonymous, would find himself frozen when he was handed a job application.
The first thing he would do was skim for the words “ever” or “seven.”
“Sometimes they say, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ and sometimes they say, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony within the last seven years?’ That makes a big difference for a guy like me; that can go from a yes to a no,” said X., whose conviction was in 2003.
Ban the Box legislation — also called Fair Chance — calls for businesses to remove the question from initial applications and only consider an applicant’s criminal history later in the hiring process.
In 2017, Sandra Johnson — who remembers the defeat she felt each time she had to check the box on job applications following her time in prison — took her story to Sacramento, testifying in favor of California’s Fair Chance Act, which extended the Ban the Box policy to private companies.
“Getting out was horrible for me, horrible,” Johnson said. “Getting into the workforce was the hardest, and I would be so scared because I would fill out so many applications and I wouldn’t get a call back.”
Though the California bill passed, company compliance has been another story. Johnson’s employer, Root & Rebound, which is working to reduce the barriers to employment that those with records face through advocacy and litigation, has identified a few large companies that continue to ask applicants about their conviction histories on initial applications.
It is planning to bring litigation to enforce the law.
Fighting the Feds
Sometimes fighting unjust laws — and winning — doesn’t require a trip to the Capitol. Sometimes it just takes a few strong voices coming together and a bunch of media attention.
That’s what the Collateral Consequences Resource Center deployed last summer when it discovered that small-business owners who had criminal records were not eligible for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program loans, which were being dispersed to offset the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
CCRC — a small nonprofit and Arnold Ventures grantee that specializes in tracking and analyzing hundreds of laws that restore rights and opportunities to people with records — received an inquiry from someone who wanted to know if people had to report expunged convictions to the Small Business Administration in order to qualify for the loan.
To answer the question, David Schlussel, deputy director of the CCRC, had to dig deep to unearth policy manuals and application forms that weren’t readily accessible. When he finally saw the full landscape of the guidelines, he learned that they contained a number of criminal record restrictions. Somehow, an issue that was affecting countless small-business owners desperate for relief during the pandemic had slipped under the radar and no one was talking about it.
CCRC began writing about the issue and posting pieces on its website. Because it was one of the only organizations trying to analyze the restrictions, the site was overwhelmed by people looking for help — so much so that the servers crashed.
“We were hearing from hundreds, maybe thousands, of businesses on our website, from individual software programmers to all kinds of big businesses, cleaning businesses, tiling businesses, they were all asking us for help, and we would connect them with journalists,” Schlussel said. “A lot of business owners and self-employed people with records ended up becoming some of the most important advocates.”
The center also helped pull together a coalition of advocacy groups and religious organizations to advocate in different forums, and in the end, amid a slew of media attention, litigation, and opposition from members of Congress, the administration rolled back most of the restrictions, and Congress extended the deadline to apply.
The added punch to the whole SBA issue was that it was affecting people who had already been met with endless barriers to employment because of their conviction histories.
“A person with a criminal record frequently has a hard time even getting a foot in the door in conventional employment, and even if they do, it’s hard to advance,” said Margaret Love, executive director of CCRC. “So as a result of those obstacles, people with records frequently decide to strike out on their own and make their own business.”
Many of these people had devoted themselves to their communities, built their businesses from nothing, and were met with a slap in the face.
“They were shocked that they were disqualified, that there was no chance for individual review of the circumstances,” Schlussel said. “It was so unfair.”
Love, who co-founded the CCRC in 2014, did so to fill a need for a forum where people could learn about the many collateral consequences those with records face and also discuss remedies. A U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997, Love wanted to “put a national face on the growing movement to try to undo some of the harmful effects of mass incarceration.”
The center’s central focus is its continuously updating Restoration of Rights database describing the relief mechanisms available in each state for people with arrests and convictions — including expungement, pardon, the restoration of voting rights, and limits on the use of criminal records in employment and licensing. The center also releases reports and analyses to share progress, identify trends, and spur lawmakers to take action.
The CCRC’s latest report, released last month, shows that despite a pandemic that cut short many legislative sessions, 32 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government managed to enact 106 legislative bills, approve five ballot initiatives, and issue four executive orders to restore rights and opportunities to people with criminal records in 2020.
The center’s comprehensive reports and database allow jurisdictions interested in reform to see what other states are doing, which can be both an inspiration and a reassurance.
Schlussel recalled an advocate in New Mexico who was involved in trying to pass an expansive expungement bill last year. “On the legislative floor, he held up the Restoration of Rights pages for neighboring states like Texas and Oklahoma to say that ‘Our neighbors are far ahead of us; we need to get something done.’ So that illustrates that comparative value.”
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, another group leading reform in this area, sees a critical window of opportunity to build on this progress and ensure that people with criminal records are included in economic recovery efforts. The CSG Justice Center is developing customized 50-state playbooks that map the actions policymakers can take to break down employment barriers for people with criminal records; the first 20 of the playbooks were released Feb. 3. With support from Arnold Ventures, the Justice Center will use the guides to raise awareness and engage policymakers, identify bipartisan champions, and galvanize support in multiple states in the coming year.
“With the pandemic devastating employment in states across the country, policymakers have a unique chance to rebuild their workforce and create an inclusive economy—one that affords opportunities to all, gives businesses access to untapped talent, and helps make our communities safer,” said Megan Quattlebaum, director of the CSG Justice Center.
While progress has been made over the years to make it easier for those with convictions to start over, there remains a hesitancy among lawmakers to go all in.
Katherine Katcher, the founder and executive director of Root & Rebound, has seen all too often that whenever positive change is made to legislation, there are always stipulations.
Her group saw that happen last summer when California’s legislature — responding to lawsuits and media attention during a devastating fire season — cleared a path for people who fought fires while incarcerated to be eligible for record expungement, which would allow them to become full-time firefighters after their release. The state opened the door but not all the way, and many people with records were excluded.
The same thing happened when California passed a fair licensing bill making it easier for people with criminal records to obtain professional licenses. Restrictions still exist for those seeking a license in community care and a number of other fields — and the blanket bans don’t allow for individualized assessments.
“There’s always this sense of, ‘Well, it can’t apply to this field or that field. We’ll do it for tree trimmers but we’re not going to open the pathways to careers like social work and law and psychology,’” Katcher said. “Even in a quote-unquote progressive state like California, there’s only so far our government and legislators are willing to go to recognize the humanity of people with records and give them a chance.”
Mayers, of Heartland Alliance, says it’s been frustrating to watch as states literally cry out for help from workers — firefighters during the California blazes and health care workers during the pandemic — but still refuse to grant those with convictions the opportunity to serve.
“Look at what is going on in California, and even in Illinois, where there has been a shortage of health care workers,” he said. “That is what stands out the most to me, that even under these circumstances, we’re still not seeing lawmakers have an appetite to open up these opportunities for employment, specifically in these occupations that are directly related to COVID and the COVID response and recovery.
“These are people who want to help,” Mayers said. “They desperately want employment, and there are all these barriers preventing them from getting employment even when there’s a need for them. The pandemic has exposed a lot of the nonsensical behavior we’ve been engaging in.”
The Reintegration team welcomes your comments and ideas as they shape their work. Please email at email@example.com.