Earlier this year, while standing before a group of 100 men imprisoned at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., I was struck by the remarkable full-circle opportunity ALM (the parent company and publisher of The Am Law Daily), through its support of Equal Justice Works, has provided me—the son of a man imprisoned at Polk three decades ago who now advocates on behalf of similarly situated men and the 1.6 million other North Carolinians with criminal records.
The young men gathered in front of me, all of them between the ages of 19 and 25, were participants in a transition seminar because each was due to be released within the next six months. Deprived of freedom but not the audacity of youth, a handful of them shared with me their plans to return to school, start businesses, and otherwise provide for the needs of their families. Understandably, they assumed they would leave behind the worst consequences of their criminal records as soon as they were free of Polk’s bars and barbed wire.
Unfortunately, the reality they face does not match their optimism. Upon being released from prison with their debts to society paid, most of those young men will not receive the restorative opportunities they deserve. Instead, after being denied the privileges, opportunities, and resources essential to productive citizenship, approximately half of them will eventually be reincarcerated. Many of those who remain free will live in destitution.
Few of the men—and few of those who occupy statehouses around the country—truly understand the degree to which criminal records serve as modern-day scarlet letters that trigger hundreds of state and federal civil disabilities. Indeed, these soon-to-be-free men, like approximately 65 million Americans, will be designated as second-class citizens, vulnerable to private discrimination and communal exclusion. Isolation from gainful employment, affordable housing, public assistance, and a host of other resources and opportunities are the far-reaching “collateral consequences” of criminal records that often do more harm than one’s criminal sentence.
Looking out into that crowd of youthful faces and recognizing the gulf between their optimism and the reality that awaits, I felt—perhaps more fully than at any other point in my project—the profound cruelty and urgency of this problem.
I thought about Luther, my first client, who was charged with a nonviolent felony at the age of 17. It was his first brush with the law, and he was advised that if he pled guilty to the charge he would serve just a few months in prison. Not once was Luther warned about the collateral consequences that would likely flow from that conviction. Thinking himself fortunate to have avoided a lengthier sentence, he accepted the deal and served his six months.
Almost 20 years since that lone criminal conviction, Luther describes his life since release—branded a felon and denied job after job—as “still serving time.”
Standing before those young men at Polk, my thoughts and words were not all doom and gloom. In 2012, my colleagues at the North Carolina Justice Center and the partner organizations of the NC Second Chance Alliance (ncsecondchance.org) secured several new resources that would provide relief to some of them.
I informed the young men that it is now possible to expunge first-time nonviolent felonies and obtain certificates of relief from the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. I described a pilot network of local reentry councils and a state reentry advisory council intended to coordinate the delivery of reentry resources to the newly freed. I also explained the growing availability of pro bono legal services for veterans and other low-income individuals confronting the collateral consequences of criminal records.
These newly created tools of relief are not nearly enough to fully counteract the collateral damage that convictions for even nonviolent offenses can do, but I am proud of the contributions I have been able to make to each of these efforts for both the immediate relief they will provide to some individuals—Luther, for example, is now eligible for an expungement of his nonviolent felony conviction— and the broader progress they demonstrate.
I ended that day at Polk by briefly speaking about my father’s successful reentry journey, which began with his release from the same prison in 1986. I provided enough details about my father’s journey to demonstrate that there were plenty of times when it would have been easier—more reasonable even—for him to recidivate and only his absolute resolve to always be there for our family prevented him from doing so. The payoff for his resolve was not that he became rich or even financially comfortable —he is neither. The payoff was that he was always there for me and others who were invested in him. And while I did not appreciate his strength as a child and teenager, I realize now that each of my own opportunities and accomplishments are founded in his strength.
I sincerely hope that hearing details of my family’s reentry experience helped some of those young men sharpen their focus on the individuals in their own lives who are invested in their successful reentry and will at some point appreciate their perseverance in the face of daunting barriers.
Not all of my days are as eventful or pensive as my day spent at Polk, but each offers the promise of progress—and I will always be grateful to ALM and Equal Justice Works for trusting me with this position at the outset of my career. For the rest of my fellowship and in my career beyond, I hope to express this gratitude through my continued advocacy on behalf of those who are more than the sum of their worst mistakes and who deserve opportunities to prove it.
Daniel Bowes is a 2011–13 Equal Justice Works Fellow advocating on behalf of low-income North Carolinians with criminal records. He is one of two EJW Fellows currently sponsored by ALM. He is a 2011 graduate of New York University School of Law where he was a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholar.