For those of us who have gotten tangled up in the correctional system, the consequences of having a record continue to follow us long after we have served our statutory debt to society. Despite having completed our sentences, people like me with a conviction on my criminal record are often barred from jobs, housing, financial aid to go to college and other keys to regaining family stability and economic security.
Though California has already repealed many of the draconian drug laws that led to millions of young men — overwhelmingly people of color — ending up with criminal records, the state has other laws and social practices in place that result in a criminal record becoming a scarlet letter that prevents people from fully re-entering society.
I have seen this first hand, both in the work I do with Project Kinship and in my own life. Like many of the people I grew up with in Orange County, I wound up getting into trouble as a kid and was exposed to numerous experiences of trauma and abuse that led to an early absence of hope. At the age of 22, I found myself self-medicating on meth, on the streets struggling to overcome addiction and shame.
I was an addict, and wound up in and out of local jails, all on misdemeanor drug-related charges. One night, I was picked up with an empty baggie in my shoe that had methamphetamine residue. Under the state’s harsh drug laws, that was an automatic felony that resulted in numerous barriers to employment and education that undercut my ability to provide for my family.
As I eventually got clean, took responsibility and worked to get my life in order, I quickly learned that having a criminal record follows you far beyond the concrete walls of incarceration.
I wanted to go to school, but initially couldn’t get financial aid because of my drug conviction. I couldn’t get public assistance. Job opportunities vanished every time I checked the box that told potential employers of my past. I’ll never forget memories of not being able to provide basic necessities such as diapers for my 2-year-old daughter. Dignity and self-worth began to chip away as opportunities were out of reach.
Eventually, I got a part time job at the Salvation Army, and was accepted to college. Throughout my educational journey I encountered challenges such as scholarships that were initially awarded then rescinded because of my record.
Luckily, with the support of my family and others, I was able to pull some strings to secure financial…