‘Second Chance’ laws sought

— Advocates for people with criminal records are calling for changes to state laws they say make it nearly impossible for former convicts to become productive members of society once they’ve finished their sentences.

In the weeks leading up to crossover, state lawmakers moved a series of bills that would make small changes to expunction laws and facilitate re-entry. But two of the biggest proposals didn’t get hearings at all.

One, House Bill 399, would raise the age for some adult crimes from 16 to 18 years old. It is not subject to crossover because it appropriates money. It has bipartisan support. The other, House Bill 612, known as “Ban the Box,” would have directed state and local governments to stop using a job application question about an applicant’s criminal record as an automatic disqualification for further consideration. It did not have bipartisan support, and it did not survive the crossover deadline.

Still, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that they intend to continue the fight to help make it easier for people with criminal records to find employment.

“These are people with unfavorable backgrounds who need another chance, who need an opportunity to get back into their communities,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, the sponsor of “Ban the Box.” “We do believe in a second chance because all of us, if truth be told, have had some second chances in life.”

Former prosecutor Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, stressed that he believes in consequences for crimes, adding, “it’s possible to go too far, it’s possible to destroy people’s lives for no good reason.”

“It used to be that the worst part of being convicted of a minor criminal offense was you’d have to spend a few days in jail. Now, that’s dwarfed by the long-term financial consequences that keep people from being able to provide for themselves,” Jackson said. “Look at the economic cage we’ve locked them into. Ask yourself if there isn’t a more reasonable approach.”

In 2011, Durham became the first city in North Carolina to “ban the box” on job applications. Daryl Atkinson, senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

In 2011, 2.3 percent of hires in Durham city government were people with past criminal records. In 2012, it was 4.4 percent, rising to 9 percent in 2013 and 15 percent in 2014.

“The sky didn’t open up and rain down plagues,” Atkinson said, adding that the city has seen “no increases in workplace crime, and none of those folks have been terminated because they’ve committed an offense.”

Atkinson stressed that not every job is appropriate for someone with a felony record, but he said in many instances employers are using a criminal record of any kind as a blanket disqualifier for any job.

“They’re not making that individual assessment to see if there’s a direct relationship between the underlying record and the job,” he said, noting that Koch Industries recently banned the box on applications for all its subsidiaries and calling it “the moral thing to do.”

About 1.6 million North Carolinians – roughly one out of six – have criminal records. Across the country, some 700,000 inmates will be released from prisons every year for the next 10 years, a higher number than ever before.

“When we think about the turmoil that’s going on around the country, one of the common denominators is communities feeling shut out of opportunity,” Atkinson said.

Re-entry advocate Dennis Gaddy agreed.

“If you make it hard to do the right thing, you make it easy to do the wrong thing,” Gaddy said.

This story was written by Laura Leslie and was published to’s NCCapitol blog on Tuesday, May 5, 2015 


SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson discusses “On the Run” on HuffPost Live

Senior Attorney Daryl Atkinson joined host Marc Lamont Hill and University of Wisconsin Sociologist Alice Goffman in a HuffPost Live discussion of Goffman’s book, “On the Run.”

Much of “On the Run” focuses on the book’s main subjects, black men in their 20s living in a Philadelphia neighborhood who find ways to evade, dodge and run from police in order to avoid arrest, prison time for small crimes. Beyond running from the police, the subjects of Hoffman’s book communicate the reality that they aren’t able to rely on law enforcement or the court systems to help them when they need it. Atkinson discussed their perspective, and offered several alternatives to the vicious cycle of criminalizing, incarcerating, and reducing opportunity that disproportionately affects black men in the United States.

“When we talk about our country, our enabling documents talk about the ability to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Overcriminalization really cuts against the fabric of some of the deepest values of our country.”

Atkinson promoted policy-based solutions that exist today:

  • Move a number of low-level moving infractions and livability offenses out of the criminal justice system and into a civil penalty system that will not hold people in financial bondage.
  • Use the criminal justice system only to the measure that is necessary so that people are not incarcerated longer than is necessary. Base judgement of such necessity on evidence from applied and data-driven social science research.
  • Remove the second class status that is attendant to contact with the criminal justice system

Culture-shift solutions are just as needed for comprehensive criminal justice reform: We have to enlarge the “We”

“All of the fights that we’ve been engaged in in this country have really been about more clearly defining who “We the People” are. We need to enlarge that “We” to truly include poor people, black and brown people, and people who are currently living on the margins of society.”

You may view the segment in its entirety below.

Policing and Prisons Threaten Black Men in the U.S.

The Marshall Project

Words matter: the importance of humanizing criminal justice vocabulary

Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed.

What to call incarcerated people: Your feedback

We received more than 200 responses to our callout asking the best way to refer to people behind bars. Of the options we offered, 38 percent preferred “incarcerated person,” 23 percent liked “prisoner” and nearly 10 percent supported use of the word inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”)

Here is a sample of the responses (some of which have been edited for length or clarity).


I don’t like the term – I was one once – but at least this term is localized to the actual incarceration event and allows someone to move past it once they are released…. – Robert Pelshaw

“Inmate” is concise and accurate without being pejorative…Arguably, “inmate” is more versatile than “prisoner,” because it includes people who are confined to institutions other than prisons, such as psychiatric hospitals, and immigration detention centers. –Lindsay Beyerstein

Nomenclatures are important and exist to clarify the world around us…my preference is to keep the terms simple while simultaneously remembering that there is a human being on the flip side of that word. – Trish Navaratnasingam

Just as you might refer to someone by their occupation, “an attorney, a writer, a teacher”, while a person is in prison, they are “an inmate”….I am a retired state prison warden, and “inmate” is the term staff and inmates used. – Sherry Davison

For me the word inmate is not synonymous with criminality…Inmate suggests people confined within a dwelling, and for me, nothing more than that…For perspective: I worked at Reeves County Detention Center III as a correctional officer from 2006-2008. – Ashley Moya

As a journalist and convicted felon, I think a lot about the power that language has to redeem or condemn. Like a lot of reporters, I try to be thoughtful about the way I describe people, especially when I’m writing about marginalized groups. But on a personal level, I don’t care much about whether someone labels me a felon, ex-con, or formerly incarcerated person — whatever…If someone asks, I get right down to it: “I was convicted of a felony. I sat a year in jail for a burglary.” See? When facts are stated frankly, labels have much less power…I appreciate being thoughtful about the labels we apply. But the question here seems more of a concern for the advocates or social worker — less so for the convicted felon looking forward to having his civil rights restored. – Mario Koran

Incarcerated person

As a formerly incarcerated person, the term inmate feels disparaging. We were often called this by officers with a tone of disgust. I think it’s important to use the term incarcerated person, however clunky, because it is so easy to forget that we are talking about people when we use words like inmate or prisoner. – Jacqueline Conn

I have had both experiences as a criminal defense attorney and an incarcerated woman. Prior to my incarceration, in the role as a defense attorney, I recognized the immediate devaluing of a person as a human being as soon as they encountered any aspect of the criminal justice system…While in prison, part of the dehumanizing programming is the use of the word inmate. You are referred to as inmate 27402-038, for example, and relegated to an underclass referred to as “the inmates”. It stays with you, creating a public and subconscious persona that is far removed from a person’s true identity. Inmate is a term used to reduce human qualities, separate and disparage… – Andrea James

Mass criminalization has pushed us to the point where one out of every three adults in the US have a criminal history record (arrest or conviction for a felony or a misdemeanor). That is an awful lot of people to simply relegate to their criminal justice status. They are first and foremost people. – Alan Rosenthal

As a public defender I know that many of the folks who are incarcerated aren’t guilty, aren’t criminals. I don’t like the label. Because they are more than that, they are people, someone’s people, my people. – Chantá Parker

It would be ridiculous to label each of us based on the worst moments of our lives. It’s equally ridiculous, and cruel, to make people forever bear labels that define them first and foremost as their crime. – Katherine Katcher, Founder & Executive Director, Root & Rebound: Reentry Advocates Berkeley, CA

The criminal justice system is meant to–or purports to–keep our society safe. If that is truly our objective, we should do everything within our power to ensure that it works towards those aims without creating (or perpetuating) a permanent class divide. Inmate, felon, and prisoner are just the latest epithets in a long and ugly history. – Jonathan Stenger

When I worked as summer law clerk at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on a team prosecuting 7 men ultimately convicted for the mass killing of over 3000 Muslim men and boys, we were asked to research what enabled the generals to get soldiers to carry out a slaughter such as this…Turned out, one of the most important steps was to rename the victims in the months (even years) preceding the mass murder. To get society in the habit of calling the group you’d like destroyed anything other than people is step one. It is a tactic of war and a tactic used to support genocidal acts. That is why, respectfully, I’m casting a strong vote in favor of “incarcerated person” and making an appeal that The Marshall Project and others steer clear of the dangerous words that dehumanize and make people invisible and dispensable. – Gina Clayton

Because I am not a status, I am a person and a human being. The labels are usually being used to my disadvantage and dehumanize me. It makes torturing and killing me much easier to do. Just think the next time you see one of us laying dead in the middle of the street and see how easily our deaths are excused by status, label, and history. I believe the current language makes the practice of racism and supremacy appear to be neutral. – Dorsey Nunn

When describing someone who is currently serving time in prison, we at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights believe that “incarcerated person” is the best term, but only insofar as the discussion is actually related to their incarceration. One of the problems with our criminal justice system is the pervasive belief that people serving time are no longer a part of our communities. Dehumanizing language like “convict,” “inmate,” “felon,” or “prisoner” only serve to reinforce the belief that such a division exists, which can lead to stripping people in prison of their fundamental human rights, like the right to vote, to have healthcare, and to see their families. – Zachary Norris

Formerly incarcerated people taught me about how such language is preferable even to “prisoner,” which is what I’d been taught to use in my prior advocacy work in the 1990s / early 2000s as an alternative to “inmate.”…The state intentionally creates systems to dehumanize the people whom it imprisons as a strategy to make it easier to abuse power and exert control over people. The public is less likely to become outraged about human rights abuses against people in jails, prisons, detention centers, juvenile facilities, etc., if the people they are abusing are not seen as people (or as brothers, sisters, siblings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins), but rather as inmates, detainees, felons, sex offenders, rapists, addicts, etc. etc. – Andrea Bible

The problem is not just that this language is dehumanizing, as Eddie Ellis and so many others who have been called these words so persuasively insist. It is also that this language is inaccurate because it is incomplete: the elements about a person’s identity that it excludes are entirely relevant to our understanding and decision-making about what to do when that person has broken the law or causes harm…What we need is a criminal justice policy for *people* who commit crime—incarcerated *people*, *people* with felony convictions, *people* on parole, even *people* who have caused great harm and should be held meaningfully accountable. Any truly effective policy solutions will make central the humanity of everyone directly impacted by crime—including those who commit it. It is true, as you put it on your website, that “storytelling can be a powerful agent of social change.” The scale of change that is called for in this arena is significant enough that it not only demands new content, but new words. It is time to start talking about people. When we do, our language will reflect the humanity of those we describe, and we, too, will be humanized in the process. –Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice, Vera institute of Justice


Convict is too archaic, while “inmate” is a term once used for mental patients in asylums (and is often considered a derogatory term among prisoners). The correct term for people in jail who have not been convicted is “pre-trial detainee.” “Formerly incarcerated person” is just getting too PC and putting form before substance. As a former prisoner myself, I don’t want to be known as a “FIP.” –Alex Friedmann, Prison Legal News

Inmate implies mental infirmity such as an inmate in a mental hospital. The person is being held in a prison and is therefore a prisoner regardless of how or why they are there. As a former prisoner myself, sentenced to 25 years for smuggling marijuana, I bridled at being called an inmate. – Richard Stratton

I want to recognize that the organization I work for, Black and Pink, has been conducting a survey of LGBTQ prisoners across the country [that asks this question directly], and of the nearly 1,000 respondents, there is no agreement. We offered the options of inmate, prisoner, incarcerated person, person who is incarcerated, and other. “Other” had the largest percent, with most respondents saying they simply want to be referred to by their name. The issue of language is essential, but it’s important to be clear what purpose the user of the language has. I find the term “inmate” to be intentionally depoliticizing the reality of incarceration. When Black and Pink releases a final report, we will use the term prisoner in our writing, recognizing that there is not a universal agreement amongst our membership about terminology. – Jason Lydon

I’m a law student immersed in criminal defense. I’m also a prior defendant in a federal case with decades of punitive exposure, a veteran with four combat tours, and I have an MFA in Creative Writing, so I know the value of individual words….I propose that it’s best to use words that describe what the vast majority of American inmates really are: Prisoners of War. They’re prisoners of war in a racist and classist War on Drugs. They’re prisoners of war in war against poverty, but instead of trying to raise them up out of poverty, our society just wants to throw them out of sight. – Matthew Hefti

As someone who was a prisoner myself, “Prisoner” is the most accurate term for someone in prison…One anecdote about this: I was once disciplined fairly harshly in a California women’s prison for referring to myself as a prisoner while speaking to an officer. In our conversation, the guard interrupted me and told me I was a female inmate, and not a prisoner. He said that referring to myself as a prisoner was against rules and furthermore subversive to the order of the facility. – Kathleen Culhane


As a probation officer, they are initially defendants and eventually clients…They are receiving a service from me, the same as if they were applying for a loan at a bank. Past action is not always indicative a future action and a label should not precede the person. – Josh Gunselman

Person in prison…I have spent years working for and side-by-side with people who are in prison or who have been released from prison. I have witnessed over and over these individuals – who are my clients, my colleagues, and my friends – physically wince when others refer to them as “prisoner,” “felon,” “offender” or “criminal.” It is a sad commentary on our society that people lose their status as people – as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, employees, friends, colleagues, etc., – because they have committed a crime and been caught. Yet people who have committed a crime and not been caught – and let’s face it, this is the vast majority of all people – do not similarly lose their humanity. How can this be justified? Indeed, how can it be justified in the face of the reality that people of color tend to be caught more than their white counterparts? – Patricia Warth

Man or woman or person who is incarcerated…Let’s stop using correctional language designed to denigrate and dehumanize. If we want to make sentencing less extreme and conditions of confinement less brutal, we need to keep each of the people suffering the cruelty of system up front. Words are important. – Lois Ahrens

Man, woman or person in prison…I teach at a prison and insist that my students not use the term “offender,” which is what the prison system calls them and they, for too long, have called themselves. I tell them it would be like referring to someone as “liar” because they lied years ago. As for prison officers (and I was one), I find “guard” derogatory, and better describes something you do with inanimate objects. “Correctional officer” conveys a fanciful, and to my mind unseemly, relationship btw keeper and kept. “Prison officer” simply denotes an individual granted official authority within the specific domain of a penal institution. – Kelsey Kauffman

I work with juvenile offenders and I always insist on asking them what they prefer to be called, which is usually their first name. The security staff only ever call the kids by their last name. I’ve always felt that it’s too militaristic and it allows staff to forget that they aren’t dealing with adults. – Nancy Acevedo

Uttering their name without disdain will actually be music to their ears. Their path took a wrong turn. They are there to be corrected. Not punished! I was a cop for twenty years. – Kumar Prem

When you examine the history of this country whenever America wanted to oppress or dominate a particular group of people they first began with the language they used to describe that particular group of people. When America wanted to justify taking indigenous people’s land we described them as “savages”. When America wanted to justify the chattel slavery of African people we called them “jiggabo”, “monkey” or “nigger” terms that debased their humanity. The list goes on and on. Lastly, I respectfully disagree with your argument that pejorative labels like “ex-convict” are accurate descriptors of people who have been to prison. The analysis is similar to one put forth by undocumented advocates when they began the “I” campaign. Labels like “ex-convict” describe conduct that I engaged in which may have violated a law but they do not describe the full breadth of my humanity. So in 1996 I was convicted of drug trafficking. Since that time I have attained my Associates, Bachelors, and Juris Doctor degrees. I’m licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina. I have been honored at the White House. I’m a Deacon in my church. I’m a husband, a father, and a valued member of my community. It’s unfortunate and a disservice to the full breadth of my humanity to solely defined me by my contact with the criminal legal system. I’m more than the sum total of my contact with the criminal legal system. When the Marshall Project began I got the impression that you all wanted to report on issues related to criminal legal reform in a different way, to hopefully spur change and reform. Changing the language you all use to refer to people entangled in the criminal legal system will make you a leader in the media and further the progression of this movement. Thank you for the opportunity to give my perspective. – Daryl Atkinson

This story was originally filed on April 3, 2015 at


“Ban The Box” Advocates Call For Executive Order At White House

Criminal justice reform advocates are meeting with top White House advisers on Wednesday to help people who’ve done their time, Politico reports. They’re urging President Barack Obama to issue an executive order banning the government and federal contractors from asking most prospective employees questions about criminal records. The demand is commonly known as “ban the box,” which refers to the section of job applications where employers inquire about arrests and convictions.

“People shouldn’t be penalized for their whole life for indiscretions they have made,” a member of the activist delegation told Politico.

Some 70 million Americans have criminal backgrounds that make it harder for them to find work,according to the National Employment Law Project, which supports “ban the box” measures. People of color, who make up 60 percent of the prison population, are disproportionately impacted by criminal background inquiries, advocates point out. They also say that background checks run counter to the justice system’s goal of rehabilitation.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have passed “ban the box” laws. Last month, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who is Republican, signed an executive order to that effect.

Major labor, religious and civil rights groups support a similar order aimed at the federal government and its contractors. A letter calling on the White House to issue the order was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, the the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Presbyterian Church, among other prominent groups.

Some have raised concerns about lifting criminal background inquiries for all federal jobs. But even “ban the box” advocates acknowledge it might make sense for some agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, to be exempted from an eventual order.

In 2013, the Department of Labor issued a warning that federal contractors who exclude job applicants based on criminal records risk violating anti-discrimination laws. However, the agency has yet to explicitly prevent such employers from engaging in the practice.

This post was written by Cole Stangler and appeared in the International Business Times on MArch 25, 2015.


“Ban the Box” campaign gains momentum in Washington

This story was written by Josh Gerstein and appeared on on March 25, 2015  

Obama urged to ease hiring of ex-prisoners

A group of criminal justice reformers, including some who served prison time, are headed to the White House Wednesday to press President Barack Obama to do more to help those who’ve been convicted of crimes find jobs, housing and other necessities once they get out.

The delegation is urging Obama to issue an executive order that would ban the federal government and government contractors from asking most job applicants about their criminal histories. The idea, labeled “Ban the Box,” has already been enacted in some form in 14 states and more than 100 localities.

“The trip to the White House for me is really meaningful,” said Dorsey Nunn, who now runs the San Francisco-based charity Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and went to prison in 1971 — at the age of 19 — in connection with a liquor store robbery in which the store’s owner was killed.

“I had to sit down and wrap my head around the fact that I had walked through both the gates of San Quentin and the gates of the White House compound,” Nunn said in an interview, referring to a visit he paid to the White House for another event last year.

The “Ban the Box” campaigners are set to meet Wednesday with the White House Director of Urban Affairs Roy Austin, as well as others from the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council, before going to the Labor Department for another meeting.

Former prisoners say the challenges of getting a job and a place to live after doing time are among the leading factors that push former inmates to commit new crimes and society to incur additional costs to lock them up again.

“Look, it’s not rocket science,” said Daryl Atkinson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “If folks can’t participate in the legal economy, that pushes them back to the illegal economy.”

Atkinson, who’s scheduled to attend the White House session Wednesday, spent 40 months in prison in North Carolina for drug trafficking in the 1990s before attending college and law school. He noted that about one in four American adults have faced charge or conviction in the criminal justice system and can encounter hiring problems as a result.

“This affects between 65 and 71 million Americans. If we want to make sure those folks have the opportunity to contribute to the economy and become taxpayers and productive members of society, this is a necessary policy initiative,” Atkinson said.

The campaigners say they’ve gotten a “very open” reception from other administration officials, such as a “re-entry” council Attorney General Eric Holder set up in 2011 to address problems integrating former prisoners into society.

Removing or delaying questions about criminal records in the federal hiring process raises obvious questions, like what to do about the tens of thousands of jobs that are security-related or require background checks. The Obama administration has pressed in court to preserve the government’s ability to demand such checks even for low-level positions, like store and data-entry clerks.

Atkinson said the fact that people with a criminal history might not be suitable for some government or contractor jobs doesn’t mean all of them should be off limits.“I can imagine in the FBI’s case, its positions, or Homeland Security, they’d be exempted out. That’s reasonable, but that’s the exception rather than the rule as far as the vast number of federal jobs associated with the federal government,” he said.

A White House spokesman declined to discuss the meeting or the administration’s stance on the “Ban the Box” idea, which was fought in California by the district attorneys’ association.

In 2013, the Obama administration warned federal contractors that bans on hiring those with criminal records could run afoul of discrimination laws because of the disproportionate rate at which minorities are incarcerated. However, the memo didn’t explicitly prohibit contractors from taking such issues into account.

As Obama’s presidency winds down, criminal justice reform has emerged as an issue of greater focus for him. It’s also garnering attention from Republican governors and from conservatives like mining barons Charles and David Koch. Former Obama White House aide Van Jones and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are holding a summit meeting in Washington Thursday, aimed at cutting prison populations by 50 percent.

The effort to focus on rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners got a boost this week from two very prominent figures in the judicial system: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.

“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions, functions, that we have in our entire government,” Kennedy said at a House budget hearing Monday. “Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. And once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections….This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. And it’s not humane.”

“I think it is a big problem for the country,” Breyer added.

In connection with the White House meeting, more than 100 labor, civil liberties and religious groups sent a letter to Obama Wednesday urging him to take executive action to require what the advocates call “fair chance hiring.”

Another campaigner headed to the White House session, Pastor Mike McBride of the faith-based group PICO Network, said he believes the bipartisan drive will make it easier for Obama and his aides to see a move on the ex-prisoner employement issue as a part of his legacy.

“I believe we’re creating a kind of crescendo and climate where the idea we’re verbalizing will be an easy, softball pitch for them,” McBride said. “People shouldn’t be penalized for their whole life for indiscretions they have made.”


Selma 2015: Banner

Selma march feels like ‘hope and justice magnified’

Susan Burton of A New Way of Life in Los Angeles and Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice finally got their turn to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge — twice.

Burton’s dispatch:

There are just thousands and thousands and thousands of people, as far as the eye can see, people lined up coming across that bridge.

We marched backward across it the first time, signifying the rights that have been lost, the injustice of the criminal justice system. Voting rights. The fact that I can’t serve on a jury, despite the fact that I’m 20 years from ever having been incarcerated.

When we reached the other side of the bridge, we turned around to march in unity with everyone else. It felt so powerful. I felt like there was a uniting of all the energy, the collective mass of individuals. It felt like we were a body, we were a power, we were a force.

There were people in wheelchairs. There was a guy who was there on the first march, he was walking up on a walker.

I’m on my way to the airport now, and people are still coming across that bridge! Oh, my goodness. It felt like hope magnified. Hope and justice magnified.

–Susan Burton
Selma 2015

This coverage of the 2015 Selma march was written by Susan Burton and first appeared in the L.A. Times on Sunday, March 9, 2015. Photo Credits: L.A. Times

Clean Slate Cover

Greensboro workshop focuses on cleaning up criminal records

This story was written by Amanda Lehmert and was originally published in the News & Record on Saturday, February 28, 2015.

GREENSBORO-On a bitter cold Saturday in January, folks crowded the pews at the Beloved Community Center.

There was a pregnant mom who was having trouble finding a landlord who would rent to her.

There was a young man who couldn’t get a student loan. And a certified crane and forklift operator who couldn’t find a job.

They had one thing in common: a criminal history that was making it hard for them to move on with their lives.

In recent years, the General Assembly has passed laws that have given people new ways to clean up their criminal records.

Such organizations as the N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — which ran the session at Beloved — have held clinics around the state to provide no-cost legal services to help people get their records expunged or pursue other legal remedies.

Just in the last few months, hundreds of Triad residents have taken advantage of the avenues to clear their name.

“They face roadblock after roadblock after roadblock,” said Daryl Atkinson, a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition, a left-leaning nonprofit organization based in Durham.

“If we can offer a legal intervention that can remove some of those barriers so people can get jobs, housing, education, we can get more productive folks in our society,” Atkinson said.


Nearly one-third of Americans are arrested by the time they are 23 years old, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics.

They may have the charges against them dropped. They may have to serve time, pay fines or fulfill their probation. But that doesn’t mean their punishment is over.

They must also deal with collateral consequences. Those are the social and legal barriers that prevent a person from living life like someone who has never had contact with the justice system.

The UNC School of Government has cataloged a wide range of North Carolina rules that can hinder a person’s ability to get a job, certain licenses or public benefits — sometimes indefinitely — once convicted of a crime.

Becoming a foster parent. Getting a hunting license. Working for a pest control business. Accessing low-cost child care. Driving for a wrecking company. Getting certified to euthanize animals. Running a beach bingo game.

And those are only the state rules. People with a criminal record also face federal barriers and limits imposed by individuals and companies.

A record reduces the likelihood of a job callback or offer by about 50 percent, according to research published in the American Sociological Review.

Even an arrest for a low-level crime without any conviction hurt a person’s ability to get a callback from an employer, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Purdue University found.

African American candidates with a record are even less likely to get a chance for a job, researchers found.

The stigma continues, sometimes years after someone cleans up his or her act.

“After five to seven years, if someone hasn’t committed another crime in that period of time, they are no more likely to do so than someone who’s never been caught,” said Bill Rowe, the advocacy director for the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning research and advocacy nonprofit organization in Raleigh. “You should pay whatever is the right thing to do for the mistake you make. But how long do you keep paying?”


The people who packed into the Beloved Community Center in downtown Greensboro last month know this all too well.

Russell Williams, 51, of Greensboro is certified to work forklifts and cranes. He can’t get work.

“I’ve never had a felony in my life, yet my little misdemeanor criminal past keeps me from getting jobs,” Williams said. He said he stole tuna fish and Spam because he was hungry.

Another man has worked at Taco Bell for 12 years, but he can’t get promoted because of his record.

Deidra Bowman, 21, a Randolph County resident, came to January’s session in her K&W Cafeteria uniform, hugely pregnant. She had a string of arrests when she was a teenager.

“I was just young and dumb. I got into a lot of fights,” Bowman said. Those charges were dismissed.

She was about to be a mother of two babies. She has a steady job. But a half-dozen landlords wouldn’t rent to her because of her arrest record.

“I don’t want to live in the ’hood,” she said. “I don’t want to live in the slums.”

Another man is studying nursing, but he can’t finish his clinical work because the hospital affiliated with his school won’t take workers with criminal records.

Rico Gant, 27, a Reidsville resident, is working as a certified nursing assistant and studying at community college. He would like to transfer to UNC-Greensboro, but he was denied financial aid because of his record.

Gant was convicted of a felony more than 10 years ago, when he was a teenager. He hasn’t been in trouble since.

“I didn’t know the impact it would have now,” he said.


More than 200 people reached out to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice for help as a result of that January clinic at Beloved. Lawyers working pro bono were able to help some of those people begin the process of clearing their names.

The state law allows people to have their criminal records erased — or expunged — under limited circumstances, such as first-time, dismissed or juvenile charges and nonviolent felony convictions.

Often, a person is only eligible if they have stayed out of trouble for years.

In 2013, the state also added expunction for first-time prostitution charges in cases of human trafficking.

People who have been convicted of no more than two low-level felonies also may seek a certificate of relief, which was adopted by the legislature in 2011. State Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro was one of the bill’s sponsors.

If a judge grants the certificate, a person may get some relief from those state-sanctioned collateral consequences, like getting a licence from an occupational board.

“One-third of jobs in North Carolina require some sort of occupation certification or license. The vast majority of those (occupational boards) have traditionally denied individuals based on convictions,” even when the crime has no connection to their ability to do the job, said Daniel Bowes, a lawer with Legal Aid.

The certificate also limits the legal liability of people who then hire or rent a home to someone with a record.

Advocates say those new laws are a good start, but they would like to see them go further.

“People are thinking a little differently now about what we need to do to make sure people do integrate and have a chance to get back on their feet,” Rowe said.


SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson discusses ‘The New Jim Crow’ on HuffPost Live

SCSJ Senior Attorney Daryl Atkinson appeared on HuffPost Live at 6:30 PM EST with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and HufffPost Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim to discuss Michelle Alexander’s critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness and the opportunities for criminal justice reform.

Alexander’s book reveals the phenomena of mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and the second class status of people with criminal records—America’s latest symptoms of unresolved structural racism and white supremacy—by exhaustively detailing the policies, practices, and political choices that buttressed our country’s latest system of racial caste. Thoroughly researched and deservedly praised, The New Jim Crow effectively lays bare “how historically both [Americans’] conscious and unconscious biases and anxieties have played out over and over again to birth these vast systems of social control.”*

The New Jim Crow’s thesis and concurrent call for criminal justice reform to redress racial injustice have become increasingly influential and galvanized a national debate about the efficacy of mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Moreover, the book has spurred many Americans to take new notice of the injustice of our current criminal justice system and its relationship to our unresolved racial history. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Alexander’s seminal work has birthed a grassroots movement that can support successful interventions and reforms championed by organizations like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. SCSJ is currently spearheading a multidisciplinary campaign to eliminate racial bias in the criminal justice system, end mass incarceration, and remove unjust barriers faced by persons with criminal records.

You may watch the HuffPost Live program here:

ban the box

Ban the Box to increase tax revenue and reduce crime

‘Ban the Box’ to increase tax revenue and reduce crime

Guest Commentary

ENGAGE: Write a letter to the editor

For 1.6 million North Carolinians, the worst part of job searching is not the interview, but the moment they drop off the application. Nearly every employment application contains a small box on the front page that reads, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” By marking that box, applicants with a criminal record, no matter how old or irrelevant the crime, are effectively checking away their chance at a job. To increase tax revenue and reduce the likelihood that formerly incarcerated people will return to a life of crime, North Carolina needs to ban that box.

Ban the box initiatives follow a simple logic: Study after study show that the most effective way to reduce crime is not to build more prisons or hire more police officers, but to provide more jobs. Formerly incarcerated people who cannot secure jobs are more than twice as likely to return to criminal activity than their employed counterparts. Additionally, more people with jobs means stronger family ties, greater economic security, and increased tax revenue. A Philadelphia study on Ban the Box reported that hiring 100 formerly incarcerated people would add $1.9 million to income tax revenue, $770,000 to sales tax revenue and save $2 million per year in criminal justice costs incurred through recidivism.

“Criminal record history acts as a tremendous barrier to people providing food, shelter and clothing for their families,” says Daryl Atkinson, senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a group that spearheaded the Ban the Box movement in North Carolina.

Atkinson is himself a formerly incarcerated person.

“Ban the Box has been proven to help people get back to work and improve public safety because if people are able to take care of themselves, they don’t go back to crime. If we are serious about good allocation of tax dollars, we need to ensure that more people with records can get back to work and be productive members of society.”

Employers have a right to know if the person they are hiring has a criminal history. We wouldn’t want someone convicted of embezzlement to land a job as a comptroller. Ban the box doesn’t mean that employers lose the right to do a background check, it simply moves that step further down the job application process, after the applicant has had the opportunity to present his or her qualifications and skills.

“When you go to prison you are serving your debt to society, but the way the system is set up, that debt continues after you get out,” says Steven Manning, a Durham resident who served three and a half years in prison from 2001-2005 for possession of a firearm by a felon. “When companies deny you a job because of what you did in the past, that creates a revolving door back to prison. I can fill out 20-30 applications and not get a call back because of my record.”

The city and county of Durham, N.C., implemented Ban the Box initiatives in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Since then, the City of Durham has hired 700 times more people with criminal records than previous years. The County of Durham has seen a 300 percent increase. Importantly, not one of these new hires has been terminated due to illegal activity and neither has there been an increase in workplace crime. In fact 96 percent of applicants with criminal records were ultimately hired, even after background checks. This indicates that the majority of criminal history was determined to be irrelevant, either because the crime was unrelated to the job or occurred many years ago and the applicant has demonstrated rehabilitation.

It’s not often that we see an initiative that can reduce crime, strengthen families, and increase revenue, but Ban the Box accomplishes all those objectives and more. It’s about second chances and breaking the cycle of poverty and crime that grips so many generations. When one person secures a stable job, that person’s children are also more likely to finish school and gain secure employment.

With that in mind, the Second Chance Coalition, a statewide alliance of advocacy organizations, service providers, faith-based organizations, community leaders and interested citizens, have come to advocate for Ban the Box statewide.

“As a person who leads an organization that works with formerly incarcerated persons, I support the Ban the Box Initiative,” says Dennis Gaddy, executive director of Community Success Initiative, a non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society and a leader of the Second Chance Coalition. “Under the current system, when an individual checks the box, there are so many things we still don’t know. How long has it been since the crime was committed? What has that person accomplished since then? Ban the Box allows people a second chance at work — I’m for Second Chances!!”

To get involved in Ban the Box initiatives this year in North Carolina, visit :

— Tessie Castillo is the communications and advocacy coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Learn more at

criminal records

Eliminating the Second-Class Status of People With Criminal Records

Daryl Atkinson ’07 is a man on a mission to ensure that equal justice under the law is realized for those with a criminal past. His mission is simple: restore the civil rights and human rights of people with criminal records. This may appear to be a mighty feat as America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with more than 2 million people in prison and 65 million people with a criminal record. For Atkinson, however, this is an eternal battle for justice, and his law degree has equipped him with the tools to wage this battle in a strategic and calculated manner.

Atkinson’s Personal Journey: From the Jailhouse to the White House

Atkinson’s decision to pursue a career in the law was not taken lightly. He desired to become an attorney in order to redress a moral injustice – the impact of the war on drugs. In 1996, Atkinson pled guilty to a first-time, non-violent drug crime and served 40 months in prison (based upon a mandatory minimum sentence). He remembers receiving ineffective legal counsel from an attorney he paid a substantial retainer. Ultimately, Atkinson left this experience feeling victimized by his attorney and the criminal justice system because he received the same sentence that he would have if he appeared pro se. After this experience he was determined to “know the rules of the game” by gaining a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the law.

Atkinson was determined to never forget his past and committed to ensuring more people were fully restored after leaving the prison gates. He compares his personal experience to the prodigal son, a powerful biblical account of redemption. Similar to the prodigal son who returned home to a feast and received a signet ring (which reflected the restoration of his societal status), Atkinson was welcomed home to a loving family and nurturing community.

This support was critical to his success. He has no delusions of grandeur that there is anything special about him. His successes are a direct result of his network of support. He believes if more people had access to food, clothing and shelter post-release then they could make good strategic choices, as he was able to do. Unfortunately, for too many people, this is not a reality; hence, they are not fully restored to their sense of humanity nor their citizenship. Atkinson was determined to create a pathway to liberty for all. His pledge to attend law school soon became a reality.

Atkinson was drawn to the University of St. Thomas School of Law due to our social justice mission. He describes the mission as “icing on the cake.” While at UST, he was an exemplary student who modeled leadership and academic excellence. He was an active member of the Black Law Students Association through which he promoted community engagement and supported education programs.

Upon graduation, he began his work in North Carolina and beyond of advancing justice for those with a criminal past. Atkinson focused his efforts on his passion: using legal services and advocacy to eliminate the second-class status of people with criminal records. He is a founding member of the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a burgeoning statewide coalition of advocacy organizations, service providers, faith-based organizations and community leaders that have come together to achieve the safe and successful reintegration of adults and juveniles returning home from incarceration. Moreover, Atkinson serves on the North Carolina Indigent Defense Services Commission and the Commission for Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System. Most notably, Atkinson helped develop the Collateral Consequence Assessment Tool (C-CAT), an online searchable database that allows the user to identify the collateral consequences triggered by NC arrests, indictments and convictions. C-CAT was one of the first databases of its kind and served as a template for the American Bar Association’s National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction.

Today, Atkinson serves as a senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), where his work focuses on criminal justice reform. SCSJ follows a community-lawyering model where lawyers, social scientists, media specialists and community organizers work together to advance social justice. Atkinson has developed a multifunctional toolbox that includes community education and organizing, public policy advocacy, direct representation and impact litigation. These tools provide Atkinson with many advocacy strategies for advancing the cause of justice.

On June 30, 2014, Atkinson’s advocacy work drew national attention. He was honored with a White House Champions for Change award. According to a White House news release, “The Champions have distinguished themselves through their extraordinary dedication and hard work to help those with criminal records re-enter society with dignity and viable employment opportunities.” Attorney General Eric Holder recognized Atkinson’s transformative journey in his remarks when he said, “Daryl overcame his own involvement with the criminal justice system and has since worked to build a better future not only for himself – but for countless others who deserve a second chance.”

Atkinson describes himself as a modern-day abolitionist due to his vow to deconstruct the current criminal justice system and end the second-class status of people with criminal records. He quotes the statistics of the United States having only 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. He warns: “We are either a country with really bad citizens or we are doing something terribly wrong in our criminal justice system.”

Pearls of Wisdom for the Next Generation of Social Engineers

Despite all of his accolades and victories in the fight for justice, Atkinson believes he has not accomplished anything until we radically transform the criminal justice system. He warns, “We have plenty of work to do.” Atkinson believes that he is only passing a baton with his advocacy. He provides an image of a relay race in completing the “unfinished business” of protecting the civil and human rights of felons.

He is handing the baton to the next generation of law students by challenging them to become social engineers. He offers pearls of wisdom for running this race: 1) Find a creative way to finance your legal education to remain free from the golden handcuffs associated with student loan debt. This will allow you to seek the career that aligns with your vision for justice and life’s calling. Atkinson knows the generous scholarship he received from St. Thomas empowered him to do the work he is doing today. 2) Be driven by what you are most excited about even if it is not the most popular or lucrative area of the law. Your passion will drive you to wake up and do the work.

Similar to the David-and-Goliath story, Atkinson wages war against the “Goliath” of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. He has modeled courage and boldness as he re-imagines a nation without second-class citizenship for those who have a criminal past. He has his sword (his legal training), buckler (his passion for justice) and shield (his faith). Atkinson is well equipped to bring this giant to its knees as he spreads his vision for justice.

This press clipping originally appeared in the St. Thomas Newsroom on February 3, 2015.

Artika Tyner ’06 J.D., ’12 Ed.D., is assistant professor of public policy and leadership in the St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership and Counseling, and former diversity director at UST School of Law.