After four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization in the United States, as many as 1 in 3 Americans now have some type of criminal record, and nearly half of US children now have a parent with a record.
Today, as part of the Department of Justice’s inaugural National Reentry Week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro visited Philadelphia to hear how brushes with the criminal justice system have stood in the way of employment, housing, and more — and how people have persevered.
Here are three stories told to Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Castro — they are representative of the experiences of millions of Americans held back by a criminal record.
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Ronald Lewis: “So Many Doors Have Been Closed in My Face I Know What Wood Tastes Like.”
More than 10 years ago, when I was 25, I was convicted of two misdemeanors. In one case, I was on the street with my brother when he was selling drugs, and I warned him that the police were coming. In the other, I tried to steal a pocketbook at Neiman Marcus. I did my probation for these cases, and have been a law-abiding citizen ever since.
I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life. I got a building engineering license in hopes of getting a good job. I am starting my own company so that I can give other people second chances working for me. I give freely of my time to be a role model to kids in my community and to younger men who are tempted by the streets. But to so many people, I am an “ex-offender,” and nothing more.
I’ll never forget the first time I was turned down for a job because of my record. I had been on the job for about a month when my background check came back. I was called into Human Resources and told they had to fire me because of my record. Security was called to immediately remove me from the building. It was the worst feeling of my life. It was humiliating to tell my family, who had been so proud of me, that I had failed again.
That was the first of many times that I was turned away from jobs I was qualified for because of my minor record. More times than I can count, companies have told me, “You’ll be great. Your skills are exactly what we are looking for.” But then that question about my background comes up. So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like. And because of my record, I can’t even take my kids on school field trips. Do you know how devastating that is?
I do not and will not give up. My family is depending on me. My children are depending on me. I hope that one day, my record can be cleared, reflecting who I am now. That is why I am speaking out to support the Clean Slate Act, a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would automatically seal non-violent misdemeanor convictions after someone has remained crime-free for 10 years, as I have. This law would make a world of difference for people like me — and for our families and kids.
Helen Stokes: “I Was Denied From Senior Housing Because of My Arrest Record”
I was 56 the first time I was ever arrested, in 2008. My husband, whom I later divorced, attacked me. When I called the police, he claimed that I had assaulted him. Can you imagine? Then two years later, after I took his ATM card for our joint account so that he wouldn’t spend our money on drugs, I was arrested for theft. Both times, the charges were dropped. I have never been convicted of a crime in my whole life.
After that, even though I had not been convicted, I got turned down for jobs because of my arrest record. Eventually, in 2014, I went to Community Legal Services for help. My lawyer got my cases expunged, and I thought that was the last I would hear of them.
I can’t even take my kids on school field trips. Do you know how devastating that is?
But about six months later, when I was trying to move into subsidized housing for seniors, I was denied admission because of the record that I wasn’t supposed to have anymore. I couldn’t believe it. I called the lawyer who had gotten my cases expunged, and she called the property managers and provided my expungement orders, but they still wouldn’t let me in. I had tears in my eyes when I got the rejection letter. Even after I told RealPage, the company that had done the background check, about my expungements and filed a dispute, they again reported my expunged cases to another senior housing facility, which also rejected me.
By this point, I was panicked. My house was being foreclosed on since I could no longer afford the mortgage payments after my divorce. I was worried that I would end up on the street or that I could no longer live on my own.
Eventually, a social worker at Community Legal Services helped me find a senior apartment, where I will soon be moving. It is a huge relief. But I don’t understand why senior housing would hold cases like this against me to begin with, given that I wasn’t even convicted.
Community Legal Services has since filed a class action lawsuit against RealPage for illegally reporting expunged cases like mine. I am proud to be the main plaintiff in that case, because I think justice must be done for other people like me. Background check companies like RealPage must learn that they cannot report expunged cases. But housing facilities should also give people like me a fair chance instead of turning people away just because of an arrest record.
Tyrone Peake: “Employers Weren’t Allowed to Hire Me Because of My 30-Year-Old Record”
When I was 18 years old, I was arrested with a friend for trying to steal a car. We had our girlfriends in town for the weekend. When one of the girls’ mothers insisted that she come home, we tried to steal a car to take her back. Mind you, I couldn’t even drive — and we weren’t even able to get the car started. But we had broken open the ignition, and I ended up being convicted of attempted car theft. I did three years of probation, and I never got in trouble again.
I am now 53 years old. I raised three daughters who are now all grown up. All my life, I’ve had a passion to help people, so I decided to pursue an associate’s degree so I could do health care work, graduating from Community College of Philadelphia in 2014. I never dreamed that a mistake I made when I was 18 years old would follow me for the rest of my life. But until recently, my decades-old record kept me from getting a full-time job in the field I’d gone to school to work in.
After I got my degree, I learned that Pennsylvania had a law that prohibited me from working in long-term care jobs because of my record. Even though more than 30 years had passed without me getting into trouble again, employers that wanted to hire me were not allowed to because of the law. I eventually got a part-time job working as a recovery specialist, but the law prevented me from doing other jobs with the organization no matter how qualified I was — and no matter how much time had passed since my conviction.
Last year, Community Legal Services and pro bono lawyers challenged the law on behalf of me and other Pennsylvanians who had unfairly been stopped from working in jobs that we should be able to have. In December, Pennsylvania’s appellate court agreed with us and struck down the law.
The problems that I had because of my record caused me to doubt myself — and my future — for a long time. But I have a lot of joy knowing that this unfair law has been changed, there is a lot of hope and opportunity for me and others who come behind me and are trying to get ahead.
Editor’s Note: All three of these individuals were represented by lawyers in Community Legal Services’ Employment Unit. They gave permission for CLS and TalkPoverty.org to share their stories to help shine a light on the lifelong barriers associated with having even a minor record.
To commemorate National Reentry Week, TalkPoverty.org will feature posts throughout the week by leaders on reentry — all exploring the barriers to opportunity facing people with criminal records, and why addressing these barriers is a critical part of criminal justice reform.