I was arrested at 15, tried and convicted as an adult at 16-years-young, and sentenced to the maximum-security prison in Canon City. Later, upon my release, I struggled to secure employment, which was a mandatory condition of my parole. Responding truthfully to the application query “Have you ever been convicted of a felony crime?” nearly guaranteed being denied employment from any job, creating an impossible situation for me and others like me. Long after I was off of parole I continued to be consistently denied housing and employment because of my past conviction. I had a family to house and feed and it was extremely difficult.
I applaud and support HB 21-1214. It takes the essential step of helping people who were never convicted of a crime ensure that they maintain their innocence. We believe in “innocent until proven guilty” in our society, and many people who have been arrested but never charged carry the burden of accusations that were never substantiated. This bill is also a step toward empowering people in our society to rebuild their lives after serving their sentence. It will strengthen our economy, families, and the work force. Most importantly, it is a large and a long overdue extension of grace and mercy for those who need second chances.
People of color enter the housing and job markets at a disadvantage because of generations of oppression and stereotypes. We lack privilege not because of inadequate skills, intelligence, talent, or commitment to the work, but often because of the color of our skin.
Many argue that Black and brown people have made incredible strides and I agree. Systemic injustices are being examined and new policies, like HB 21-1214, are being created that attempt to correct centuries of racism. But people of color still suffer from bad systems, policies, and attitudes that have created generations of inequity.
The welfare system makes people dependent upon government assistance, diminishing the motivation of doing for self. This system has significantly perpetuated the dismantling of the family structure.
Our biased public education system, by its own admission, fails to properly educate an overwhelming number of Black and brown children. This failing has created the much obscured “school to prison pipeline.” The most at-risk children are funneled out of schools and into the criminal justice system, often for minor infractions and zero-tolerance policies.
The judicial system has played a large part in the oppression of our society as a whole. Black people are stopped, detained, arrested, and jailed for less cause but convicted with longer sentences than any other ethnic group in the United States. They are less likely to receive reconsideration, appeals, commutations, and pardons after being in the judicial system and trying to reenter society.
HB 21-1214 will add to the long overdue process of making the playing field even. We must stop denying the horrific scars and wounds that racism has left. We must intentionally create policies that provide opportunity and equity and instead allow oppressed people a second chance at life.
Removing barriers to sealing records is only a first step in ensuring that people can thrive once they have left the criminal justice system. Employment and housing applications should no longer be able to ask about a person’s criminal history. We must move beyond judging people based on what’s on paper and instead develop strong relationships. Let’s get back to looking an individual in the eye and giving second chances to those who need them. We must remember the wisdom of Dr. King who implored us to judge on the content of one’s character.
Promise Lee is an activist and the senior pastor of Relevant Word Ministries in Colorado Springs.