From Plea Bargain to Organizer: A Women’s Story

plea bargaining

Councilmember Curren Price announcing the Los Angeles City Council’s vote to pass the Fair Chance Ordinance for LA

I was trying to frame a story that shares the experience of the women that I have encountered in the work that I do but when writing, I felt more comfortable sharing my own experience because it is the one to which I can speak most truly. . . .

We are living in a time where the expectancy of a Black person being arrested and convicted of a crime in the United States of America is one in three. Black people make up less than 13% of the total population but represent close to half of the prison population. Criminalization and incarceration is the root of the suffering in our communities.

That suffering is extended and magnified as people are branded with convictions that are reflected on one’s record, oftentimes permanently. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid physical captivity as punishment for a conviction, as well as we who have survived our sentences and have been released from incarceration are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges to readjusting our lives as citizens in this nation.

Convictions in the “land of the free” carry lifelong consequences which bind people to stagnant living. People are locked up and then set free, only to be locked out of society altogether.

A felony conviction in the USA does not mean you spend time behind bars and then your debt is paid. Convictions in the “land of the free” carry lifelong consequences which bind people to stagnant living. People are locked up and then set free, only to be locked out of society altogether.

Of the 43,000 barriers to gainful opportunities faced by formerly incarcerated and convicted people across the USA, employment is consistently identified as the number one challenge. The historical narrative has been that employers disregard people who disclose information about past convictions on job applications and during the interview process.

People with convictions have been 50% less likely to be granted gainful employment, no matter how old and irrelevant the charge. When people are denied opportunities to establish livelihoods, we end up further displaced, discouraged, and marginalized. People then become easy targets for further criminalization and oftentimes return to prison.

Recidivism rates in the state of California have reached over 60%, largely due to the failure of our society to welcome folks to rejoin the community after a felony conviction. Until recently, there have been no legal protections concerning employment for people who have a conviction history.

One month after my 18th birthday, in the middle of my senior year in high school, I was contemplating spending the next twenty-seven years of my life in prison. The promising future I had worked so hard to secure was going to be ripped from me, as the result of a poor adolescent decision. To avoid losing decades of my time, I gave up my right to be judged by a jury of my so-called peers and accepted a plea arrangement for a much lesser sentence. I did not realize the impact of a felony record. I avoided prison but there was no avoiding a sentence to a lifetime of exclusion.

In my best efforts to move forward with my life after being released from jail, I continued through a university-level education with a full-time schedule. Wanting so badly to have the complete college experience, I joined a few clubs on campus to stay involved but had such limited time to spare. My commitment wavered. While trying to keep up in college, I worked a few full-time minimum wage jobs in order to manage paying back bail and the cost of tuition and books, in addition to protecting my livelihood. Most restaurants did not do background checks at the time, so I spent five years serving dinners and cocktails for tips through the midnight hours. Once the terms of my punishment were fulfilled, including almost 300 days on a work-release program, I became eligible for a record expungement.

That was the year before I would finally earn my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies concentrated on Public Argumentation and Rhetoric. Within six years after my conviction, I had had my record expunged, earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree, and acquired diverse work experience. I felt proud of myself for having fought through extremely challenging battles to make my dreams come true. My actions were solid proof that I am deserving of every opportunity to reach my full potential and that I will work incredibly hard at anything I do.

I became hopeful again.

After undergrad, I spent the next four years applying for opportunities that would allow me to practice my education and propel myself into the next level of life. Each time I thought that I was close to gaining an opportunity, I met the same barrier. The decade-old felony conviction, which was now expunged, still locked me out of several careers and pathways to success. I found myself settling for jobs at private companies with little opportunity for career advancement because they did not have access to expunged records or simply did not require background checks.

In continuing to seek opportunities, my human dignity was trampled upon and my rights were violated. Companies that should not have access to expunged records somehow illegally obtained them, used my conviction against me, and then rescinded the job offer due to what is in the report. Each time that I was turned away because of a poor decision in my past, it became more difficult to press on. Giving up was never an option for me but I did not know what to do from that point. Hope was drowned out by the sound of voices crying to have their human and civil rights restored and my voice was the loudest that I could hear.

As the advocate in me began to grow, I was making a salary that didn’t quite leave me starved but definitely left me straddling the poverty line. Working as a technical writer was easy and provided a much better platform to practice my skills but it was not helping knock down any of the barriers that I faced as a convicted person.

One day as I was going through the motions, drafting job descriptions, I came across a very interesting email. It was an invitation to apply for a voluntary training on women’s organizing in Los Angeles. At the top of the application read this exclusive prerequisite: You must be formerly incarcerated or convicted in order to apply. Right before my eyes was the opportunity to learn organizing skills so that I could become equipped to campaign against the structural and oppressive laws and practices that kept me locked out of pathways to success for over ten years.

In January of 2015, I was accepted to the women’s organizing program. By the fall of the same year, I was offered a paid position as community organizer for All Of Us Or None—a national organizing movement to strengthen the voices of formerly incarcerated and convicted people to have their human and civil rights fully restored. I happily accepted the opportunity and have been organizing in this movement ever since.

On November 30, 2016, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pass a Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance which provides employers with a legal process they must follow concerning prospective employees with criminal convictions. The LA Fair Chance Ordinance is an extension of the California State legislation (AB 218—otherwise known as Ban the Box) that was passed in 2013, ensuring that people with criminal convictions are given an opportunity to present themselves as qualified candidates before having to undergo any background check or answer any questions about convictions until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. To make sure that this policy is enforced, included in the language of the ordinance is the right to private action in cases where the process is violated as well as a fine structure for violators.

This kind of process really honors the human dignity of people who are striving to make their lives better and to reach their full potential. It is a real step in the right direction to breaking down the lifelong consequences that people face after their court-ordered debt has been paid. It restores hope to someone like me, who for so long has been overlooked and marginalized. We celebrate this victory and many others around the country. Organizations like All Of Us Or None have been advocating for this kind of change in the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement since 2003. Though the results are outstanding, they are simply not enough. Employment is one aspect of the continued oppression of people with convictions but the reality is, when people return from prison or jail, the relief of physical freedom is short-lived and replaced by high anxieties due to the numerous challenges faced when transitioning back into society.

When we think about re-entry, we think about the basic needs of people who are released from prison. They need somewhere to go, food to eat, clothes to wear, and a job. What we don’t think about is the actual time it takes for people to regain their identity after so many years of forced conformity within those concrete walls. We do not consider enough the women who have spent their entire youth behind bars (often well into their childbearing years and have missed the opportunity to have children). Some folks have had family members die while they were serving time and have no one to come home to.

We don’t consider the adverse effect that the virtually permanent state of isolation and loneliness has on women and men who are finally released after years of caged living with no positive human contact. We tend to overlook that the traumatic experiences, which emanated from the communities where these souls grew up, have led these same people down the road to incarceration–these issues are frequently not being addressed as they should.

As a consequence of what they endured during their formative years, too often prisoners and the formerly incarcerated are in need of deep mental healing and are not getting it. So many have lived lives feeling voiceless well before their first encounter with the criminal justice system and that voicelessness is magnified when they are in prison. Those who are concerned about re-entry matters must also think about how to help people find their voice and reconnect to their inner power. We need to honor the creative individuality of folks and help them sharpen their talents in order to find their purpose to be able to reach their full potential.

“Re-entry” is a word that has categorized people’s needs very narrowly, a situation which adds to their marginalization. Perhaps it is time to leave that word to history and start to embrace the idea of restored-citizens, where folks come home to resources and opportunities to become mentally, physically, and economically healthy while re-building the community using their own power.

Realizing that prisons have not made our society safer, it is time to divest from law enforcement agencies and invest in the rehabilitation of our citizens and the restoration of our communities so that we eliminate the need for prison and re-entry altogether. Each day, we must take steps toward breaking down the lifelong consequences to incarceration that impact so many people.

amber rose howardA poor decision in my past has led me to a lifelong commitment to struggle against systems of oppression, particularly the very punitive judicial system that seems to be at the center of the plethora of issues that rob people of their power.

In honor of my ancestors, elders, and the heroes who sacrificed their energy and lives to shape the battle that is now in our hands, let the struggle grow until it reaches fruition!

Amber-Rose Howard

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