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National Second Chances Day of Action: America’s Second Chance Citizens

In the 2012 Presidential elections, a group of over 1.4 million Floridians did not show up at the polls. It had nothing to do with voter apathy or with literacy. In fact, many of those people wanted to take part in the vote. They had IDs, were documented Floridians and had strong opinions.

They also had a criminal record.

In a 2012 the Sentencing Project released a study detailing how many people, by state, did not have the opportunity to vote based on prior prison sentences. To be clear, none of the people were currently still in prison.  1.3 million weren’t even on parole anymore. They were fully integrated back into society. They were our neighbors, our church members, and our children’s parents. Some may have been our children. Or our brothers. Sisters. Fathers. Mothers. They were people. People who had made mistakes and had served the sentences the justice system had imposed.

That is, after all, the American Way.

Still, these American’s found themselves in a place where though they had completed their 2, 5, even 20 year sentences. They had completed parole. For many, their convictions were so long ago that they barely spoke about them. It was a “rough patch” in life. Something so many of us can relate to. Other than that, few would know they had ever gone through that time.

Except for when they had to apply for a job.

There is a box that all of us have seen. A tiny box on the bottom of applications.  A simple square that can determine the rest of someone’s life. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”  There is always verbose prose written next to that box that ensures the applicant knows that in no way will answering this question truthfully affect whether or not they will be hired. However, the truth employers ask for is not the truth they give. Companies around the nation have been known to throw out, albeit illegally, the applications of men and women who were ever convicted of a crime. Is that legal? Of course not. There are laws written to protect the formerly incarcerated from that type of discrimination. But those laws were written because someone in the government exercised some foresight once. They realized that even though it was illegal, companies would still do it. And companies DO in fact still do it. In 2013, auto-maker BMW and chain discount store Dollar General both faced federal lawsuits for unfairly disqualifying applicants with criminal backgrounds.

Let’s look at this objectively for a moment. The argument for not hiring someone with a criminal record lies very firmly in social faux pas. Many consider themselves “greater than” those who may have committed crimes, and don’t deem them “fit” to serve the public.  That is blatant discrimination. No different than not allowing someone to work at an establishment because of the neighborhood they live in or friends that they have. Barring sexual offenders working in schools (which the law protects anyway), what does someone’s 1989 marijuana conviction (that never would’ve happened now that it’s legal in 23 states) have to do with their ability to stock a shelf? What does someone’s 2008 DUI have to do with how well someone can cooperate on an assembly line for German cars? These two felonies are the most reported felonies in Florida: possession with intent to sell and the felony DUI. They are nothing to scoff at. They absolutely deserve prison time.

But what happens after that?

A felony on your record, even if the sentence was 2 years, will follow you around forever. Some would say that people should have thought about that before they did the crimes. I would offer that if I suffered from alcoholism, or could not attend college or get a good paying job due to economic hardship and resorted to selling weed, that what I was thinking about was not what this could do to me years down the line. Rather, I was thinking about how I was going to survive that day. Survival.  A job, a proper re-entry into society (perhaps something a person NEVER received), and hope for the future could change whether a person who was formally incarcerated ever goes back to prison. It could change how much of an asset they are to society. It could change the lives of everyone they are connected to who DIDN’T make their mistake, more specifically, their children. With a criminal record you cannot live in affordable housing. With a criminal record you can barely get a job. If you don’t have a job, you NEED affordable housing. Without a place to live, you violate parole and go back to prison. It is the most vicious of catch-22’s. Where do you go? How do you take care of your children? How do you repair your mistakes?

It’s almost as if we are saying, as a society, that even though there are sentencing laws on books, we reserve the right to apply a life sentence. Your fault for not being perfect.

To not allow a formerly incarcerated person to even try to have a second chance at life is not only cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s also discrimination.  It is our society saying that mistakes are not tolerated here. That sentences are our cheap way of purporting justice but in actuality, in America you pay with your life.  It is saying that you are no longer an American citizen worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you break a law. We become tyrants.

At Faith in Florida, we are fighting everyday to return the right to vote to people who have criminal records. Our friends at the National Employment Law Center are working tirelessly to ensure that regardless of time formerly spent in prison, everyone has a fair chance at a job. Organizations around the nation are working day in and day out to extend citizenship back to American citizens that America doesn’t want anymore. Our Partners at Brave New Films have helped to gather the story of a man who went from prison and undesirable circumstances to a hard working, tax paying, upstanding American citizen. This is not an anomaly. This story could be recreated across the nation in cities and rural towns alike. We need to stop seeing formerly incarcerated people as less than a full American citizen and start viewing them, as Brave New Films likes to call them, as Second Chance Citizens.

Watch the film here.