Punishment of those convicted should end after time is served
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.
Tamisha Walker, shown with Rev. Ronald Burris, founded the Safe Return Project to give support to Contra Costa County residents coming home from incarceration.