Having My Cake and Justice, Too

Sep. 23, 2015 / By Susan Burton

Sept. 27 is always full of meaning for me.  First, it’s my birthday.  And 20 years ago, I spent that birthday in prison.

What a difference 20 years can make. This Sunday, Sept. 27, I’ll be at a free community fair at Exposition Park, helping people remove felonies from their records that are barriers to jobs, housing, education and many other opportunities afforded to our citizenry.

This is all possible because of Proposition 47, a ground-breaking law that has allowed me to focus on my future – not my past – opening new doors in my mission for criminal justice reform.

In 1981, my five-year-old son was struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. I was devastated. My life fell apart.

In my weakest of moments, I numbed my grief by abusing alcohol and drugs, sending me deeper into despair.  Eventually this path led me (and other Americans caught in the War on Drugs) to years of incarceration, release, relapse and incarceration again.

During this long ordeal, I lost custody of my daughter – and her respect. I lost housing and job opportunities, and my addiction worsened with each prison stint.  In 1996, released for the sixth time, a prison guard said, “I’ll see you back in a little while.”

But I proved him wrong.  By grace I received treatment and found work as a live-in caregiver. I applied to become a home health aide, but my record barred me from that line of work.

I saved money and opened a home women struggling to rebuild their lives after prison. A New Way of Life was born. Daily I see how a felony conviction permanently hangs over our heads, even for nonviolent offenses like drug possession.

Few realize that after someone serves time, California has 4,800 additional penalties for having a criminal record.  Most (73%) are lifetime bans, and 58% restrict employment.  I meet countless skilled, talented individuals ready to work, only to be sidelined repeatedly by the stigma and restrictions of their records.

My record prevented me from visiting jails or prisons, despite my years of helping women effectively transition back into society.  Until now, I have been unable to serve on a jury or apply for student loans to further my education.

Happily and justly, that changed in January. Via Proposition 47, a Los Angeles court granted my petition to reclassify my felonies to misdemeanors.  I now know personally the immeasurable feeling of having the stigma lifted.

This is one of the overlooked benefits of Proposition 47, a ballot initiative passed by 60% of California voters last November.  Prop. 47 reclassifies six low-level, non-violent crimes (drug possession and five petty-theft offenses) from felonies to misdemeanors.

It is estimated that 300,000 people in Los Angeles can now change their sentences, records and lives.  That is why my organization and others are partnering with Californians for Safety and Justice in a first-of-its kind community event on September 27.

Attorneys will be on hand at the Proposition 47 Record Change and Resources Fair (at Exposition Park, 11-4) to offer free legal advice for people who qualify to change their record under Prop. 47.  In addition, there will be other free resources, food and entertainment.  Musician Aloe Blacc will even stop by … happy birthday, indeed.

But the biggest gift of the day is for people to remove the “Scarlet F” too many with a felony record continue to wear.

Prop. 47 is a light in the mass incarceration keyhole.  In fact, 4,402 people have found their freedom from state prisons under the law so far, and thousands more from county jails.

With too many doors still shut for the formerly incarcerated, it’s time to share the key of liberty, freedom and a second chance that Prop. 47 unlocks.

What more meaningful way to spend my birthday, Sept. 27, than helping to open those doors for others who have waited so long?  That will be the frosting on my cake.

Susan Burton is founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project in Los Angeles.

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