ORLANDO – When an inmate gets released from prison, there’s a sense of exhilaration that after years behind bars, they’re finally getting a taste of freedom. No more living in a cramped cell, no more conforming to the rules of prison, no more having their lives controlled by corrections officers.
But when they get back home, they often face a painful reality: it can be just as hard readjusting to life on the outside now that they’re a convicted felon. That includes the fact that they have to fill out a job application form or rental application form that asks if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony. And if they answer yes, are their chances of landing that job or apartment instantly gone?
It’s an issue that Advocate4Justice is concerned about.
“You have to have money in your pocket to be able to go forward in life – and, of course, the support of your family,” said Vikki Hankins, who runs the Orlando chapter for this non-profit agency. “That is a concern we have here at Advocate4Justice.”
And it’s not an easy issue to deal with, she added.
“There’s a lot of people now campaigning to ban the box,” Hankins said, in reference to the box on employment and rental forms asking the applicant about any criminal convictions. “We’re not one of the organizations to do that yet.”
Advocate4Justice was founded by Garry L. Jones, a former corrections officer who worked for years in the federal prison system, rising to the position of lieutenant when he worked at the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee. He retired, relocated to Atlanta, and formed Advocate4Justice as a non-profit group committed to a more humane treatment of inmates — with the goal of bringing justice back to the criminal justice system.
The agency now has satellite offices in Orlando and Kinston, N.C. Hankins, who runs the Orlando chapter, was recently named by Jones as the official spokesperson for Advocate4Justice.
Based on her excellent work operating the local chapter, Jones said, “I have chosen Vikki Hankins to be the spokesperson for the Advocate4Justice organization.”
Hankins said the agency would continue to advocate on behalf of inmates, helping them to reintegrate into society, and erasing the stigma of having a criminal record.
One of the ways Advocate4Justice plans to do that, she said, is to convince states – Florida included – to make it easier for convicted felons to quickly get their civil rights restored.
Florida is one of several states that has a lengthy waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, serve in the military, and obtain certain occupational licenses. Earlier this year, Florida’s Executive Clemency Board voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get full restoration of their civil rights. The change requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights. This change had the support of Gov. Rick Scott.
Hankins said this is simply too long a waiting period for felons who are trying to become fully productive members of society and, having paid their debt to society, now want the same rights as everyone else.
“The Orlando chapter is specifically addressing the issue of what the governor has done here in Florida,” she said. “We have started addressing it.”
Part of the challenge, she said, is helping ex-felons find the one thing they need the most: a job. For a lot of employers, the doors slam shut if the inmate checks off the box on the application form asking if they’re a convicted felon.
“A job is their primary thing,” Hankins said. “Those people are going to run into roadblocks. They will not be able to live out their dreams without a job. Their primary thing is to get a job and reunite with their families. “
Advocates for convicted felons have been debating whether applicants should even bother answer that question – or simply leave it blank. Hankins said that’s a tough issue.
“Whenever it’s time to fill in that box on the application, my advice for those who just came out of prison would be to seek out a way to speak to whoever is hiring or renting an apartment,” she said. “I don’t know if I would say evade the box – that can work for them or against them. My advice for them would be to feel around, and try to find a way to speak to someone at the job and explain your situation.”
That can be more effective, she said, than checking off the box on the application form, and leaving the employer not knowing any of the details of their arrest and conviction.
“If there is a way for them to escape the box and speak to someone in person, I think that would be the better solution,” she said.
She also urged inmates being released from a federal prison to ask their probation officer for help.
“The majority of them have been released to supervised release,” Hankins said. “That’s what it is with the federal system. My advice would be to speak with the probation officer and ask them to help them get a job.”
Advocate4Justice was a strong supporter of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in August 2010. It reduces the disparity between U.S. federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio, based on the number of grams of cocaine in possession. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
“The law was changed because it was a racially-biased law, and it released some people,” Hankins said. “Advocate4Justice was founded to reinstate federal parole in the federal prison system. That’s our primary mission. There are many other people sitting in prison for non-violent offenses for long periods of time, and it’s costing this country a lot of money. When they eliminated federal parole, it flooded the system with inmates, and the government didn’t have the staff or prisons to accommodate all of that. We seek to have parole reinstated.”
So far, though, this has been a tough sell in Congress, something that Hankins acknowledges.
“I don’t see the government doing anything about it at this time,” she said.
But Advocate4Justice plans to keep working to highlight these issues, and to raise awareness that convicted felons can become productive members of society again – assuming all the doors don’t quickly shut in their face — a situation that this organization is working so hard to help prevent.
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