After four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization in the United States, as many as one in three Americans now have some type of criminal record, and nearly half of US children now have a parent with a record.
On Monday, as part of the Department of Justice’s inaugural National Reentry Week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro visited Philadelphia to hear how brushes with the criminal-justice system have stood in the way of employment, housing, and more—and how people have persevered.
Here are three stories told to Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Castro—they are representative of the experiences of millions of Americans held back by a criminal record.
Ronald Lewis: “So many doors have been closed in my face I know what wood tastes like.”
More than 10 years ago, when I was 25, I was convicted of two misdemeanors. In one case, I was on the street with my brother when he was selling drugs, and I warned him that the police were coming. In the other, I tried to steal a pocketbook at Neiman Marcus. I did my probation for these cases, and have been a law-abiding citizen ever since.
I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life. I got a building-engineering license in hopes of getting a good job. I am starting my own company so that I can give other people second chances working for me. I give freely of my time to be a role model to kids in my community and to younger men who are tempted by the streets. But to so many people, I am an “ex-offender,” and nothing more.
I’ll never forget the first time I was turned down for a job because of my record. I had been on the job for about a month when my background check came back. I was called into Human Resources and told they had to fire me because of my record. Security was called to immediately remove me from the building. It was the worst feeling of my life. It was humiliating to tell my family, who had been so proud of me, that I had failed again.
That was the first of many times that I was turned away from jobs I was qualified for because of my minor record. More times than I can count, companies have told me, “You’ll be great. Your skills are exactly what we are looking for.” But then that question about my background comes up. So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like. And because of my record, I can’t even take my kids on school field trips. Do you know how devastating that is?
I do not and will not give up. My family is depending on me. My children are depending on me. I hope that one day, my record can be cleared, reflecting who I am now. That is why I am speaking out to support the Clean Slate Act, a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would automatically seal nonviolent misdemeanor convictions after someone has remained crime-free for 10 years, as I have. This law would make a world of difference for people like me—and for our families and kids.