SECOND CHANCE ALLIANCE BULLETIN: Lobby Day + Chapel Hill Housing Reforms

June 4, 2015

We are excited to send this seventh edition of the NC Second Chance Alliance Bulletin, an e-newsletter providing updates of our growing movement to break down the barriers facing the thousands of North Carolinians who have criminal records. In this issue:

As always, we are looking for updates from you—what’s happening in your communities and with your organizations to break down barriers facing those with criminal records? Email updates to danielb@ncjustice.org, and we’ll include them in future newsletters. Also, please visit our regularly updated website: www.ncsecondchance.org.

Second Chance Lobby Day Recap

The 2015 Second Chance Lobby Day was a huge success! More than 200 North Carolinians with criminal records, their family members and advocates gathered at the NC General Assembly on May 5th for the 2015 Second Chance Lobby Day. Participants shared their experiences with lawmakers and lobbied in support of policies that help people reenter their communities after incarceration.

The Lobby Day kicked off with an assembly featuring law makers and formerly incarcerated North Carolinians. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice Commissioner David Guice gave the keynote address, and spoke strongly in favor of policies that help people trying to reenter society and maintain productive lives. Umar Mohammed, a community organizer from Durham, shared his personal story about coming out of incarceration as a youth to find that employers were unwilling to hire him due to his record:

“This is not just my story. I have a whole community with the same story. Luckily I came home and was able to find support and mentors. We’re capable and able to do the work. These barriers have to come down. We want to ban the box.”

Directly-impacted individuals described their experiences confronting specific barriers to opportunity, while advocates explained the bills currently before the legislature and how each would respond to a specific barrier to opportunities for men and women with criminal records. Participants were also provided tips on how to effectively communicate with legislators. A summary of those tips is included at the end of this newsletter.

The most important part of Second Chance Lobby Day was participants’ visits with legislators. In their meetings with members of House and Senate, directly-impacted individuals, advocates, and concerned citizens asked legislators to support:

Second Chance Alliance Successfully Advocates for Broader Access to Chapel Hill Public Housing for Applicants with Criminal Records

Over the past two years, the NC Second Chance Alliance partnered with members of the Chapel Hill community, including Chief Public Defender James Williams and the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, to propose reforms to the Town of Chapel Hill’s public housing criminal activity exclusion policy.  A lengthy dialogue with Town officials culminated in the adoption of transformational reforms to the admissions policy on May 1, 2015. These reforms strike a balance between the need to help community members move beyond their past mistakes and the ability to exclude individuals who truly pose a meaningful risk to the health and safety of other tenants.

Prior to these reforms, Chapel Hill’s public housing admissions policy automatically excluded applicants with any record of “illegal drug activity” for 15 years; the policy also barred applicants with any record of “criminal activity involving physical violence to person or property” for 10 years. In both its language and in practice, the policy did not distinguish between misdemeanor or felony convictions, or even between convictions and dismissed charges. Between 2010 and 2014, at least 130 low-income individuals were denied access to public housing under this policy. Many more individuals were dissuaded from even applying for public housing; still others were forced to choose between continuing to live in good, affordable housing and sharing shelter with family members with criminal records. 

The Town of Chapel Hill amended several significant aspects of its public housing admissions policy. First, in determining whether an applicant has engaged in “criminal activity,” the policy now distinguishes between convictions and dismissed charges. Second, the policy distinguishes between misdemeanor and felony offenses and otherwise takes into account the seriousness of the specific criminal activity. Third, the policy significantly reduces the periods of time during which applicants’ criminal activities will impact their eligibility for public housing. Fourth and most importantly, these exclusion periods are no longer automatic exclusion periods; instead, they are now discretionary exclusion periods. A finding that an applicant engaged in criminal activity within a relevant exclusion period will now result in an individualized assessment of the applicant’s risk to the health and safety of other tenants. The policy identifies several factors to be considered in this assessment, including the seriousness of the criminal activity, the length of time since the criminal activity occurred, the potential impact of a denial of admission on other members of the applicant’s family, and evidence of rehabilitation.

Chapel Hill’s public housing policy, as applied to applicants with criminal records, is now among the most fair and sensible in North Carolina and the nation. In embracing these reforms, Chapel Hill is not only meaningfully responding to the needs of a marginalized population within our community, it is also serving as a beacon for the many communities across our state and nation looking for ways to reintegrate individuals with criminal records in a manner that strengthens families and communities. 

Moving forward, the Second Chance Alliance will monitor the use of the new admissions policy to ensure it is as fair and equitable in practice as it is on paper. We will also build upon our prior conversations with town officials to identify other sensible policy reforms that would restore opportunities for men and women with criminal records to share in the prosperity of our community.

Alliance in the News

Greensboro workshop focuses on cleaning up criminal records, Greensboro News & Record, February 28

Forgiving vs. forgetting, The Marshall Project, March 17

N.C. alliance seeks relief for ex-cons, News & Observer, May 5

’Second Chance’ Laws Sought, WRAL.com, May 5

Let felons earn a second chance, Richmond County Daily Journal, May 7

Member Spotlight

North Carolina Department of Commerce
Division of Workforce Solutions
Former Offender Initiative

One in every 5 adults in North Carolina—1.6 million people—have criminal records that often isolate them from gainful employment. The Department of Commerce, Division of Workforce Solutions (previously the Employment Security Commission) created the Former Offender Initiative in 2008 to provide employment services tailored to the needs of unemployed men and women with criminal records.

The Former Offender Initiative is staffed by a team of 6 Regional coordinators and a State Program Coordinator, as well as local office staff assigned as Former Offender Specialists. Former Offender Specialists provide direct services to former offenders and market former offenders to employers. Regional Coordinators provide technical assistance and guidance to NC Works Career Center managers, each center’s Former Offender Specialist, and other center staff. Regional Coordinators are also responsible for coordinating with community partners, including faith-based organizations, probation and local, state, and federal correctional facilities, to make sure clients are able to flow through the NCWorks system as smoothly as possible. They also participate in introducing employers to hiring incentives for employers of individuals with criminal records, including Federal Bonding, which provides free insurance to an employer who hires a person who may be considered a “risk” due to past behavior, and Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides a $2400 tax credit to an employer who hires an individual within 12 months of his or felony conviction or release from prison.

“It’s not usually the incentives that convince employers to hire an individual with a criminal record,” said Wendi Bowen, Former Offender Program Coordinator. “It’s that the applicant is the most qualified person for the position despite their criminal record.”

“Our staff members spend a lot of time encouraging employers to consider the skills of the applicants, rather than just their criminal records,” explained Bowen.  “The other part of our initiative is ensuring applicants with criminal records have the tools to interview well so that the employers have opportunities to recognize the applicants’ skills and talents.”

Individuals interested in receiving employment services should contact the nearest NC Works Career Center or visit www.ncworks.gov. Staff assists with updating work registrations on their online job matching system, NCWorks.gov. They also provide resume help, interview skills coaching and assistance explaining a criminal record to a potential employer. They may also provide referrals to other local programs in the area that assist individuals with criminal records.

Brian Long

Earlier this year, Brian Long of Greensboro, N.C., was recognized alongside many of Greensboro’s most distinguished business and civic leaders as a 2015 Triangle Business Journal “40 Under 40” Leadership Award winner. He was recognized for his work on behalf of men and women with criminal records striving to find gainful employment and otherwise contribute to their families and communities. Receiving his award before a packed auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, the moment surely provided Brian an opportunity to reflect on not only his good work, but his own experiences with the criminal justice system and his unlikely journey to that stage.

Today, Brian is a Regional Coordinator with the Department of Commerce’s Former Offender Initiative, author, motivational speaker, minister, husband and father of two. But his story began in the streets of New York City. As a child of a single parent household, Brian began his affiliation with a local street gang and became fully immersed in the gang culture by the age of 15. The relocation of Brian's family to North Carolina did not break his connection to gangs. Despite the fact that Brian was doing well in school, his escalating gang activity found him facing five counts of armed robbery by age 17.

While incarcerated, Brian began guiding and assisting others while carving out a new life for himself centered around his Christian faith. Still a young man upon his release, Brian applied to dozens of jobs and was rejected from them all due to his criminal record.

“One day I just prayed, and God told me to apply to a restaurant and I would get the job,” Brian recalled. “I left straight from church—still had my suit on. I spoke with the manager and told him about my record, but I also told him that God told me that the manager would hire me. And he said, ‘if God said for me to hire you then I have to hire you.”

Brian worked his way up through the restaurant over the next year until he could not advance any further due to this criminal record.  “I left to go to community college and supported myself with 5 part-time jobs because no one was willing to hire me full-time due to my criminal record,” explained Brian. 

His faith and strong support systems made it possible for Brian to transition to a journey that would take him into jails and schools to deter young boys from getting involved with gangs. Eventually this journey lead him to founding “M.A.D. Expressions”, an organization focused on helping at-risk youth stay off the streets through involvement in artistic expression.

Today, Brian is an integral part of the Department of Commerce’s Former Offender Initiative. As a Regional Coordinator, he trains Former Offender Specialists on how to respond to the heightened needs of individuals seeking employment with a criminal record. Brian also coordinates with community nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and employers.

“I speak with employers all the time,” Brian explained. “I have conversations with them and say, ‘I’m a former offender and someone gave me a second chance. If you give this person a second chance, you can help him reach the place where I stand today.’”\Brian also makes time to meet directly with clients facing the same barriers he has confronted.

“The best part of my job is the one-on-one contact with clients,” said Brian. “I start by asking them what they’d like to do with their lives, and then we develop a plan to reach those goals. I don’t sugar coat things for them—I explain that it will take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to overcome their past mistakes, but that there is a path forward.”

“The person may not be ready for the job they want, but I send them to the job they’re ready for,” said Brian. “Just seeing how their lives are being changed and how they’re progressing, and to hear them feeling good about themselves—that’s the best thing for me.”

Brian can be reached at brian.long@nccommerce.com.

Communicating Effectively With Your Legislators

  1. Don’t be intimidated. Legislators are in the business of representing the public’s interest. A significant part of their job is listening to people like you.
  2. Ask to speak briefly with the legislator. If the legislator is not in his or her office, ask for their contact information and leave the Second Chance Alliance Action Request with the secretary.
  3. Address the legislators as “Representative ____” or “Senator _____.”
  4. Introduce yourself clearly. Tell the legislator your name, where you are from, and why you are there. If you are a member of their district, it is especially important for you to let them know.
  5. Briefly share your reentry story and/or support for Second Chances. This is the most important thing you can do on Second Chance Lobby Day. In just 2 or 3 minutes, describe the barriers that you have faced as a result of your criminal record, why the legislator should try to address these barriers, and how you would use (or have used) your second chance. If you do not have a criminal record, please describe why you support lowering barriers to reentry.
  6. Be specific. Suggest actions the legislator might take, or specific bills he or she should support. Use the Second Chance Alliance Action Request as a guide.
  7. Listen, and always be respectful. Listen to what the legislator has to say, even if you do not agree with what he or she is saying. You can state facts or personal stories to support your opinion, but do not argue.
  8. Be energetic. A bit of patience and enthusiasm can go a long way. Communicating is predominantly non-verbal, so a good smile and body language will leave a resounding impression on the legislator.
  9. Share Action Request. Be sure to leave the legislator with a copy of the Second Chance Alliance Action Request.
     
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