Pun­ish­ment of those con­victed should end af­ter time is served

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - OPINION - By Tamisha Walker Tamisha Walker is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and a founder of the Safe Re­turn Project in Rich­mond, and a for­merly in­car­cer­ated mother of two boys.

Our sys­tem of crim­i­nal jus­tice is built on a fun­da­men­tal be­lief that those con­victed of wrong­do­ing have a debt that should be paid to so­ci­ety, and then for­given. But for many peo­ple with crim­i­nal records, the con­se­quences of past mis­takes con­tinue to ham­per our abil­ity to thrive long af­ter that debt has been paid.

I know th­ese chal­lenges first­hand. And I know the changes we as a so­ci­ety need to make to help peo­ple like me put their lives back to­gether.

I have been one of the lucky ones. But for every suc­cess story like mine, there are dozens of peo­ple who con­tinue to be shut out of so­ci­ety. There are nearly 5,000 dif­fer­ent re­stric­tions placed on peo­ple with felony con­vic­tions in Cal­i­for­nia, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble for peo­ple to se­cure jobs, hous­ing, stu­dent loans and other keys to achiev­ing eco­nomic se­cu­rity and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity.

Fed­eral, state and lo­cal laws on the books cre­ate ob­sta­cles for peo­ple try­ing to re­assem­ble their lives af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the trauma of in­car­cer­a­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for women, who face unique chal­lenges and needs when they rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety. The ma­jor­ity of re-en­try pro­grams are geared to­ward men. Is­sues like ac­cess to hous­ing, em­ploy­ment and pub­lic as­sis­tance be­come more dire for women, es­pe­cially those with young chil­dren, as they try to put their lives back to­gether.

When I was re­leased from jail in 2009, my first pri­or­ity was to re­gain cus­tody of my kids. But in or­der to do that, I needed to have sta­ble hous­ing and a job. Time and time again, my ap­pli­ca­tions for hous­ing or em­ploy­ment were re­jected sim­ply be­cause of my past mis­takes. I re­mem­ber go­ing to the Burling­ton Coat Fac­tory in Rich­mond, join­ing the hun­dreds of peo­ple stand­ing in line for about 100 open po­si­tions.

I got through the first in­ter­view feel­ing re­ally con­fi­dent, leav­ing with a friendly hand­shake from the woman who con­ducted the in­ter­view. As I walked away, I saw her look at the ap­pli­ca­tion, and drop it in the trash. My heart sank. I knew I would never get a call back. More than 60 per­cent of for­merly in­car­cer­ated in­di­vid­u­als re­main un­em­ployed a year af­ter their re­lease, and when they are able to find a job, they of­ten are paid less.

I had to check the box ad­mit­ting to my past record. In a com­pet­i­tive hir­ing en­vi­ron­ment, I knew I didn’t stand a chance.

The only hous­ing peo­ple can get into post in­car­cer­a­tion is sub­si­dized hous­ing. On ap­pli­ca­tion af­ter ap­pli­ca­tion, peo­ple have to check the box. And at apart­ment af­ter apart­ment, their ap­pli­ca­tions are de­nied.

The con­stant re­jec­tion has a pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact. Every de­nial is a re­minder that you are be­ing judged by your past mis­takes. I was lucky to have had Sec­tion 8 hous­ing be­fore my in­car­cer­a­tion and through the grace of God, I was able to keep my hous­ing in­tact.

But even then, I was con­stantly liv­ing in fear. Every time I had to re­new my Sec­tion 8 ap­pli­ca­tion, it felt as if I was wait­ing for my felony to catch up to me. I was con­stantly ter­ri­fied that my re­newal would be de­nied and my kids and I would be home­less.

For the past seven years, I have ded­i­cated my life to help­ing peo­ple like me put their lives back to­gether. The Safe Re­turn Project is a team of for­merly in­car­cer­ated Con­tra Costa County res­i­dents ded­i­cated to sup­port­ing peo­ple com­ing home from in­car­cer­a­tion. We are en­gaged in com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing, re­search and pol­icy ad­vo­cacy to build a com­mu­nity that is safe, healthy and eq­ui­table.

Through this work, we have iden­ti­fied the need to adopt poli­cies that re­verse the trauma caused by in­car­cer­a­tion — not add to it. As we em­brace more hu­mane sen­tenc­ing laws around the state and move away from the mass in­car­cer­a­tion trends of the 1980s and ’90s, we also need to re­form dozens of other laws and re­stric­tions to make it eas­ier for peo­ple to tran­si­tion back into so­ci­ety.

We must en­sure that we live up to the prom­ise of our own laws, and that those im­pacted by hous­ing and em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion do not have to con­tinue to wear a scar­let let­ter af­ter their debt to so­ci­ety is paid.

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2013

Tamisha Walker, shown with Rev. Ron­ald Bur­ris, founded the Safe Re­turn Project to give sup­port to Con­tra Costa County res­i­dents com­ing home from in­car­cer­a­tion.

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