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With a Criminal Record, it's One Strike and You're Out

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

Ronald Lewis was standing on a street with his brother, who was selling drugs. When police were approaching, Lewis warned his brother. Both were arrested. That minor, almost reflexive reaction, led to Lewis sharing a drug possession charge with his brother as well as charges of being an instrument of a crime.

His lawyer advised him that he could win a trial. Later, that advice became a plea offer. Without being tried, Lewis accepted a B-class misdemeanor conviction, served no time in prison, and was released from probation early for steady compliance.

That was 10 years ago. Lewis, now 35, feels he is paying again for his past mistake.

“I paid that lawyer $10,000…I didn’t know what [the deal] entailed. I didn’t know the impact it would have on my life,” he says. After going through the criminal justice system, Lewis entered a vocational program and earned an engineering license.

He says, “I thought life would begin for me…but I have had so many doors slammed in my face, I know what wood tastes like.”

According to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record. Despite being commonplace, this status can cause lifelong socioeconomic challenges.

The report, titled, “One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records,” paints the picture with an array of numbers:

  • Ninety-five percent of people who are incarcerated at any level will be released.
  • Each day, this is the case for more than 600,000 Americans who served time in prison.
  • Each year, nearly 12 million people move through local jails.

As of 2012, more than 4.7 million Americans were on probation or parole. Most will be confronted with their record as they attempt to rejoin society.

Research cited in the CAP report estimates that 87 percent of employers, 80 percent of landlords, and 66 percent of colleges use criminal and credit background checks to screen applicants.

By 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigations released six times as many background checks for employers as it had the previous decade. The federal law that regulates the criminal and credit background-check industry was enacted in 1970, before the Internet; it generally applies to credit screening, as opposed to criminal records.

Thus, millions of people who have been arrested – even for exercising their constitutional right to protest – and were never convicted or incarcerated, still carry the stain of having criminal charges come up in a background check.

“Even a minor criminal record can serve as an intractable barrier to employment as well as utter basics such as housing, such as building good credit, education, job training, and more,” said Rachel Vallas, co-author of the report.

Low-income and people of color with criminal records are often most likely to fall into a cycle of poverty as a result of their records. The transgression, plus a common lack of skills and/or education, often merge to bar them from employment, and then from the social safety net that keeps people from sliding into deep poverty.

In addition to the employment challenges, difficulties with housing, public assistance, education and training, and economic stability and mobility compound their predicament.

In the case of public housing, for example, federal guidelines bar people with certain convictions and criminal activity – mostly drug-related, but also violent and sexual offenses – from receiving assistance.

However, local agencies manage federal housing programs and have authority to create their own guidelines. In many areas, agencies go beyond the federal guidelines to evict or deny housing to entire families if any one member has an encounter with the criminal justice system, regardless of whether they were ever convicted.

Similar restrictions exist on receiving food assistance, federal grants, and need-based aid for college. There’s also the significant challenge of debt incurred from moving through the criminal justice system.

“Examples include various types of ‘user fees’ that get tacked onto a conviction, public defender fees for defendants who exercise their right to counsel, and ‘pay-to-stay’ fees to offset the costs of incarceration, among many, many others. Total criminal justice debts can rise into the hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars,” the report reads, adding that in many states, one must clear all criminal justice debt before clearing his or her record.

The difficulties often extend past the person with the record. The report notes that as of 2012, more than half of incarcerated adults have minor children. Currently, more than one in four Black 20-somethings have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood.

“It affects everybody close to you,” says Lewis. “From the moment you get in trouble, it’s a disappointment, it affects your mom…. Then your family sees you trying to turn your life around and enduring rejection after rejection. Then that spills over to your wife and your kids because your mood is not the best, and your sense of self-worth is not the best.”

There’s a form from his daughter’s school that he still hasn’t signed and returned. It includes a question on criminal background.

He says, “I don’t want them to see her differently because of my record, or things that I did.”

The report makes several recommendations to both public and private sectors on improving outcomes for Americans with criminal records. Most recommendations center on new or updated legislation in employment, background check regulations, public assistance, criminal justice debts including child support, educational aid, and more.

“Providing a clean slate is the single most powerful tool to resolve the obstacles documented in this report,” the authors write. “Congress and the states should enact legislation to automatically seal low-level, nonviolent convictions after an individual has demonstrated his or her rehabilitation – meaning if he or she has not been rearrested within 10 years of conviction. Non-conviction records should be automatically sealed or expunged, at no charge to the individual and without their needing to apply or petition the court.”

Currently, Lewis is coming upon a year being employed in his field. At night he goes to school to earn an HVAC certification, which will be his third professional license. In the future, he hopes to start his own company to give people second chances.

“You have to give people something to do, something they can be proud of,” says the father of two. “You serve your time, and then it’s like double jeopardy because every time you apply for a job it comes up. It’s one strike and you’re out. Even in baseball there’s three strikes.”

Civil Rights Groups Counting on Accurate Census

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHING (NNPA) – The 2020 census is still more than five years away, but as the United States Census Bureau prepares for the crucial count of American households, civil rights groups are weighing in and offering recommendations to improve the accuracy of the process.

Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups, said that the 2020 census may seem distant, but the census bureau is in the process of making critical decisions about the design, methodology, and content of the census that will have a dramatic impact on the accuracy of the count in minority communities.

“The census is the most powerful tool that diverse communities have to secure equal access to the benefits of American life,” said Henderson. “If your community needs a bus stop, hospital bed, polling place, or school, or wants to adequately represented at all levels of government, it will be at a severe disadvantage if it wasn’t accurately counted by the census.”

Henderson added: “Given how much is at stake for our communities, the Census Bureau must get it right.”

The Leadership Conference recently released a report titled, “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America.” It traced key laws and policies that relied on race and ethnicity to establish violations and address discriminatory practices.

The report discussed the Census Bureau’s research and testing programs, how race and ethnicity data are used to protect civil rights and the strengths and weaknesses of the bureau’s current data collection efforts.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, author of the report and a consultant to the Leadership Conference, said that race and ethnicity data are essential, irreplaceable tools for administering anti-discrimination laws across all institutional sectors.

“Ensuring equality in access to education, employment, public contracting, housing and healthcare and ending disparities in the criminal justice system depends substantially on census data,” said Lowenthal.

Lowenthal noted that the Census Bureau does not capture detailed national origin data for Blacks or Whites.

Lowenthal also said that civil rights experts often point to a lack of comparability between census data and data collected by other federal agencies, including  the Education Department and the Labor Department, which makes evaluating trends much harder. The researcher added that race and ethnicity data for people who are currently incarcerated is often inaccurate and incomplete.

“Census data are central to understanding disparities in the criminal justice system, helping policymakers, law enforcement agencies, community leaders, and advocates devise remedies aimed at restoring equitable treatment and fostering constructive outcomes,” stated the report. “While criminal justice laws in the United States are neutral on their face, both enforcement and outcomes of many laws are substantially biased against certain race and ethnicity groups.”

Prison gerrymandering is just one of those practices that disproportionately affects Blacks.

“Prison gerrymandering occurs when states and localities draw representational districts that incorporate a significant percentage of people who are incarcerated and cannot vote, a circumstance stemming from the Census Bureau’s policy of counting all people at their “usual place of residence” on Census Day (April 1 of a decennial census year),” the report explained. “For example, prisons in rural areas of a state often house disproportionate numbers of inmates from far-away urban communities, resulting in some districts with far fewer eligible voters and undermining the principle of one-person, one-vote embodied in the U.S. Constitution.”

According to a 2012 report by Demos, non-partisan public policy and research group, “in the 2000 Census, almost one-third of the persons credited as having “moved” into upstate New York during the previous decade were persons sentenced to prison terms in upstate prisons.”

Henderson said that the Leadership Conference and other groups that are pushing census reform are deeply concerned about prison gerrymandering.

Henderson said that those rural communities where the prisons are located are often allowed to count individuals who happen to be in prisons located in their towns and benefit from the inflated population numbers. Henderson called the practice “inappropriate and improper” and said that his coalition is fighting to change it.

“Because so much of the Department of Justice’s budget is being consumed by prison incarceration-related activity, any data from the census that gives us a more particularized view of what we’re dealing with in terms of our population has great implications for those policies,” said Henderson.

The report offered 17 recommendations for the 2020 census from enhanced testing and analysis of existing data to improving communication between the Census Bureau and the civil rights community, ensuring that the same race and ethnicity options are available for the paper questionnaire and the proposed Internet survey, and adding a new ethnicity category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

“Given the unprecedented growth in our nation’s diversity, it’s more important than ever that the next census collect detailed data that illuminate the lives of all Americans and give policymakers the tools necessary to understand and address the disparate needs of all communities” said Henderson.

Washington lawmakers just made reaching that goal a tougher climb when they passed a 2015 budget that slashed funding for planning the 2020 census by 50 percent.

“The Census Bureau’s funding level is extremely disappointing, essentially cutting the funding ramp-up for 2020 Census planning by half,” said Lowenthal in a statement about the budget deal. “2015 is a critical year for field testing that will inform the design selection for the next census. Congress wants a radically different census—accurate but lower cost—but it isn’t willing to invest in the groundwork needed to reach that goal. I think lawmakers are putting the accuracy of the next census at grave risk.”

Paramedic May Face Disciplinary Action Over Instagram Posting

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By Larry Miller
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune

A Philadelphia Fire Department paramedic has apologized over the social media posting of a picture where two Black men were pointing pistols at the head of a white police officer, but Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer told the Tribune disciplinary actions might be taken.

The posting, a clip from a music video by rappers Uncle Murda and Maino, titled “Hands Up,” caused an uproar from city officials over what was seen as a slur against police officers. The picture was subsequently removed by the paramedic, Marcell Salters.

Any decision regarding discipline would be made by the fire commissioner after the completion of an investigation ordered by Mayor Michael Nutter.

“I’m still waiting on a report by my special investigations people,” Sawyer said. “But based on preliminary findings I would say yes, some form of disciplinary action would be taken.”

Sawyer personally apologized to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey over the posting, he said.

Salters said on his Facebook page the posting, which appeared earlier this week, was an angry response to the national furor over the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings and not an insult against police officers.

“I would like to deeply apologize to anyone I have offended,” Salters said. “That post was out of anger [at] what is going on around the world — Mike Brown, Eric Garner and past experiences that I have had with the police. My intention was not to slander or hurt anyone or my brothers in blue. Again I am sorry.”

Nutter called the posting reprehensible and said he condemns it in the strongest possible terms. He said while citizens should always exercise their First Amendment rights, the posting went beyond the standard of decency.

“I condemn the behavior of a paramedic in the Philadelphia Fire Department who used social media to post a reprehensible message and photo that targeted police officers, particularly at a time of emotional volatility and citizen protests in the wake of the tragedies in Ferguson and New York City,” Nutter said. “We celebrate the exercise of our First Amendment right [of] expression, but there are clear limits.

“Inflammatory speech or behavior like this is simply irresponsible and could potentially incite others to inappropriate actions.”

Joe Schulle, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 22, said fire fighters and the police work together and assured police officers his people will always assist them whenever needed.

“The members of the Philadelphia Fire Department have historically had a great working relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department,” Schulle said. “We are brothers and sisters in public safety and we often call upon each other for assistance.”

'Black Lives Matter' Heard 'Round the World

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network

Across the world, people are taking different lessons from the nationwide uprising sparked by #BlackLivesMatter. Protests are capturing front-page headlines, are the topic of talk shows and are the buzz of social media from Peoria to Palestine.

Reuters opinion editor Amana Fontanella-Khan, in a recent piece, wrote, “In some countries, developments in Ferguson and Staten Island have led opinion makers to question the United States and what it stands for … Elsewhere, some use this moment to raise uncomfortable questions about their own imperfect democracies.”

Five opinion pieces from around the world were picked by the Reuters staff to illuminate the diverse reactions to “I Can’t Breathe” and other protests.

“Irony of America’s finger-pointing at China,” read a China Daily headline over recent U.S. criticisms of the Asian giant’s rights record. “The practice of finger-pointing is always tainted with a touch of irony. When you point the index finger at someone, inevitably you have three fingers pointing right back at yourself.

“After examining America’s staggering racial disparity, one cannot help wondering whether the U.S. accusation of the Chinese government this time was another political tactic of shunning criticism at itself. No one would be surprised if the assumption is true.”

The headline in the Hurriyet of Turkey read, “Obama sets examples of police state, not democracy.”

“[The cases of Ferguson and Eric Garner] damage and devalue the U.S.’s democracy and rule of law recommendations to other countries with democratic problems, which is bad for improving democracy and human rights standards around the world,” the article stated.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan took it a step further, challenging opposition deputies who criticized police brutality against protesters: “If you dare, try to throw a stone at police in America. You cannot.”

In France, the newspaper Le Monde railed, “Ferguson in Toulouse: when the license to kill and repression are commonplace.”

Last October, 21-year-old environmentalist activist Remi Fraisse was killed by a so-called offensive grenade during a protest near Toulouse. His death sparked protests and riots across the country, as protesters demanded an “end to the license to kill.”

In Israel, the newspaper Haaretz headlined a story, “What the conflicts in Ferguson and Israel have in common.”

“What does this [Ferguson and Staten Island deaths] have to do with Jews and Palestinians?” the paper posed in an op-ed. “Actually, quite a bit.”

“Traveling through Ben-Gurion Airport as a Jew is vastly different from traveling through it as a Palestinian,” the editorial continued, “just as getting stopped by the police can be vastly different, depending on whether you’re white or Black. But very few American Jews, and very few white Americans, have been told, face-to-face, what that alternative experience is like. America’s discourse about race, and the American Jewish community’s discourse about Israel, would be much better if they had.”

Blogger T.O. Molefe wrote in Africaisacountry.com #DeconstructingFerguson and lessons for Black South Africa in Black America, “Racist attacks [are] on the rise, affirmative action is often decried as ‘reverse racism’ and only 53 percent of white South Africans believe apartheid was a crime.

Jill Scott to be Honored at Essence Grammy Celebration

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Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

Essence will kick off a yearlong commemoration of the 45th anniversary of its magazine in 2015 with a Black Women in Music Grammy Awards Week celebration that will honor recording artist Jill Scott.

Now in its sixth year, Black Women in Music will honor the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter for her incredible achievement, singular artistry and powerful storytelling.

“Jill Scott is the quintessential Essence woman. Like many of the female artists who inspired her — she has touched the collective soul of women across generations,” said Vanessa K. DeLuca, Essence editor-in-chief.

For the first time, Essence will invite fans to join a host of industry influencers for the invitation-only event on Feb. 5, 2015, which will include an exclusive performance from Scott as well as several featured performances representing the classic eras in music — ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and beyond.

“Essence was groundbreaking in its founding 45 years ago, as is Jill Scott in her impact on music and the arts,” said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence. She is a fearless innovator, and it is our honor to continue to build community by bringing together music industry influencers and fans during Grammy Week for an epic celebration.”

Established in 2010, Essence Black Women in Music heralds the accomplishments of both emerging and established artists and influencers during Grammy Week. Previous celebrants include Mary J. Blige, Kelly Rowland, Janelle Monae, music industry veteran Sylvia Rhone and singer-songwriters Solange, Lianne La Havas and Emeli Sande.

The 2015 Essence Black Women in Music event is sponsored by Lincoln, Colgate Optic White and Glade. Stay tuned to essence.com for highlights and behind-the-scenes access. Follow on Twitter and Instagram @essencemag #EssenceRedCarpet. Join in the discussion on Facebook.

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