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“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.

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“Ban the Box” campaign gains momentum in Washington

This story was written by Josh Gerstein and appeared on politico.com 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.

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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 ncjustice.org/?q=second-chance-alliance/nc-second-chance-alliance.: :

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

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.

zero tolerance drug policies

Zero tolerance drug policies cannot alleviate poverty

This post is a response to Mayor William V. “Bill” Bell’s recent guest column, “First steps key in long journey to eliminate poverty.” 

Zero tolerance drug policies cannot alleviate poverty

Dear Mayor Bell,

Ray Gronberg e-mailed me last week asking me to respond to new language in the city’s anti-poverty initiative calling for a “zero tolerance” crackdown on drug activity in Northeast Central Durham. I gave him my honest reaction, which was that such a policy seemed counterproductive if the intent was to help lift people out of poverty. I had no idea that the short paragraph I sent him in reply would be framed as a story in and of itself.

As you know, it is an empirical fact that a person saddled with a criminal record for a low-level drug offense will have more difficulty finding employment and is thus more likely to remain in poverty. (In the last year, my office has assisted hundreds of people in Durham in seeking expungement of their criminal records in order to improve their employment prospects. A large percentage of those individuals were convicted of nothing more than minor non-violent drug offenses.) When the city says it intends to take even more of a “zero tolerance” approach to drugs in NEC Durham, I take that to mean even more aggressive efforts by the police to arrest anyone suspected of drug involvement and aggressive efforts from the District Attorney to prosecute. I think this is a mistake, as it will only expand the pool of people who are currently experiencing difficulty finding legitimate work opportunities.

In your column in the Herald-Sun this morning, you repeatedly questioned where I live and whether I am in a position to speak to these issues. For most of the past 5 years, I lived in Northeast Central Durham, within sight of the corner of Alston and Main, the intersection that Durham PD has labeled the “Bull’s Eye” of its aggressive drug enforcement efforts since 2007. Rarely a week went by that I did not see police officers pulling young black men out of their cars or placing them against walls, often quite forcefully, and patting them down for drugs.

This experience, in part, informed my decision to join the FADE coalition and support their organizing efforts against racial profiling and police misconduct in the community. The FADE coalition’s approach involved holding community meetings and listening sessions and taking its lead from the people living in those neighborhoods most saturated with police activity. These meetings began happening well before the anti-poverty initiative was ever announced. They informed the policy proposals, including written consent, that we brought to the City in October 2013.

I know from the hundreds of people I have met with over the last year and a half that to be young, male, and black in East Durham is to live in a state of regular surveillance and under the abiding suspicion of law enforcement. Though most focused on that demographic, this state of suspicion extends to others as well. I recently assisted a 50-year old black woman who was pulled out of her car on Alston Avenue, illegally searched, and accused of being a drug dealer all because officers saw her handing a plate of BBQ to a friend. This sort of thing does not happen on Ninth Street. In East Durham, however, it is a regular consequence of our “zero tolerance” approach.

Self-report drug use studies indicate that whites are using illegal drugs in this city at numbers equal to or greater than blacks. Yet there is no “zero tolerance” policy for Durham’s white neighborhoods. Police rarely kick in doors or drag people out of their cars in the areas surrounding Duke University. The same article that quoted my remarks also quoted the Duke dean of students saying that the university’s approach to drug offenses is “much more therapeutic than it [is] punitive.”

On this point, I believe Duke has it right. Rather than treating people involved in drug activity as our enemies, I believe we should hold them accountable for the harm they cause in their neighborhoods while also supporting them and trying to help them redirect their energy in a more positive direction. There are already multiple efforts ongoing in the City of Durham right now to do just that, including SpiritHouse’s Harm Free Zone initiative and Scott Holmes’ Restorative Justice Circles of Support program.

While recognizing that many people have different opinions on this issue, I believe the city would be better off supporting those efforts rather than doubling down on policies that are proven failures. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We have had forty years of zero tolerance and of letting police take the lead. Drugs are as available in our communities as they’ve ever been and our struggles with poverty are more intractable than ever. I believe it is time for a new approach, and that is why I responded to Ray’s questions in the way I did.

Respectfully,

Ian Andrew Mance
Soros Justice Attorney-Fellow
Southern Coalition for Social Justice
1415 W. NC Hwy. 54, Ste. #101
Durham, NC 27707

racial equaltiy

Stop Punishing People After They Have Been Released From Prison

Stop Punishing People After They Have Been Released From Prison

January 30, 2015 by Jeremy Haile

This post first appeared on BillMoyers.com.

BillMoyers.com is proud to collaborate with TalkPoverty.org as we focus on poverty coverage over the next two weeks. Every day, visit BillMoyers.com to discover a new action you can take to help turn the tide in the fight against poverty.

In America, we punish people for being poor. But we’re also one of the few democracies that punishes people for being punished.

Consider the felony drug ban, which imposes a lifetime restriction on welfare and food stamp benefits for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony. Passed in the “tough on crime” era of the mid-1990s, the ban denies basic assistance to people who may have sold a small amount of marijuana years or even decades ago and have been law-abiding citizens ever since.

The Sentencing Project found that the legislation subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the 12 most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits. Given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, banning benefits based on a prior drug conviction has brutally unfair consequences for people of color. For example, African-Americans are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, even though they use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates. A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that denying food assistance to women with felony drug convictions compromises public safety.

The felony drug ban is just one of many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face as they strive to re-enter society. Continuing to punish people after they have been punished is not only vindictive but also counterproductive to building safe and healthy communities.

The REDEEM Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would lift the ban on benefits for some people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and allow the sealing of criminal records. Learn more about the REDEEM Act today.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

The New Jim Crow

Durham City Wide Study of The New Jim Crow

These are tumultuous times for the criminal justice system. Huffington Post reports that exonerations of wrongfully convicted people are at an all time high. Meanwhile, Marissa Alexander has finally been released from a nightmare of incarceration resulting from firing a single warning shot at a known abuser. In the background, police are not being charged for killing the people they are sworn to protect -even when the murder is caught on tape as in the case of Eric Garner. The “Drug War” continues to separate families, racially profile young black men, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars to incarcerate people of color on simple drug possession charges.

If there is a single thing that can be said about “criminal justice” right now, it is that the system is woefully broken.

 Durham City Wide Study of The New Jim Crow

In the midst of this unrest, our partners at SpiritHouse are hosting a Durham City Wide Study of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book examining race and the criminal justice system. Click here to learn more about the event and take part. Watch a preview of the book below.

 

What is being done to combat this situation?

As these injustices continue to pile up, communities across the U.S. are coming together to fight back.

  • The #BlackLivesMatter movement has raised awareness about our troubled criminal justice system and its apparent indifference to the lives of Black men, women, and children.
  • Organizations like SCSJ continue to hold Clean Slate Clinics to assist people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system to regain control of their lives by getting free legal assistance to obtain certificates of relief, expungements, and other documents necessary to overcome the massive barriers to finding employment, housing, and education with a criminal record.
  • Universities such as UNC are holding panels to discuss how white supremacy reinforces racism in academic settings.
  • Arizona State University has a new course examining white supremacy and how it reinforces racist systems in the U.S.
  • YOU can join the movement to reverse the tide by participating in Durham’s City-Wide Reading of The New Jim Crow. Act now!

List of Community Partners

Individuals: Trude Bennett, Martin Eakes, Irv Joyner, Alison Moy, Mary Moore, Vivian Timlic – NAACP Diane Standaert

Organizations: Action NC, Center for Documentary Studies (Staff), Central Park School for Children Equity Team, City Well Church of Durham, Communities in Partnership Old East Durham, Durham Anti-Racist White Caucus, Durham People’s Alliance, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, FADE Coalition, First Presbyterian Church of Durham, Golden Belt Neighborhood, Muhammad Mosque No. 34, North Carolina Central University Black Law Student Association, North Carolina Public Defender Association Committee On Racial Equity, Project TURN, Self Help Credit Union, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church

 

Post by SCSJ Deputy Director Shoshannah Sayers