In prison, Erik Ortega started planning his life after release: where he would live, work and go to school, and the people who would help.
Ortega applied for a wide-range of jobs and was rejected for all of them because he had just served six and a half years in a New York state prison for possession of more than 8 ounces of cocaine.
“The one that hit me the hardest was McDonald’s,” he said. “The truth is that the impact of getting released hits you in the face. Your plan you thought you had doesn’t go the way you think it will. That’s kind of traumatic.”
Now Ortega is the program director of an employment readiness class with LifeWorks! in Charlotte, a nonprofit that helps those with criminal records get their lives on track. On Tuesday, he joined dozens of others with the N.C. Second Chance Alliance to urge legislators to pass several bills that would give people with criminal records a better chance at a getting a job and staying out of prison.
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The alliance has an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled General Assembly. And four of the eight bills the group identified as its priorities this session failed to survive last week’s crossover between the House and Senate.
The four bills that are still alive, giving alliance members some hope this session, are:
▪ House Bill 173, an omnibus crime bill that would, among other things, expand eligibility for someone with a criminal record to petition for a Certificate of Relief from the court where he was convicted of his highest offense. The certificate indicates that 12 months have passed since his release and that he is seeking lawful employment, has no pending criminal charges and has complied with all sentencing requirements, which can improve chances of receiving housing or a job.
▪ House Bill 570 would require custodial law enforcement to contact law agencies with warrants on a prisoner in order to nullify the warrants while an individual is in custody, making reentry to the public much smoother.
▪ Senate Bill 154 would expand the Good Samaritan Law that protects those who call 911 to report a drug or alcohol overdose from arrest to people on probation and parole.
▪ House Bill 712 would allow the State Bureau of Investigation to establish a used needle and hypodermic syringe disposal pilot program to reduce the spread of HIV, AIDS, viral hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.
The highest priority for alliance members and their Democratic allies was House Bill 612, which would “ban the box” – the question of criminal record on the front of an employment application. That bill did not have bipartisan support and failed to get out of the House.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat who heads up the Legislative Black Caucus, said there are just certain bills the party in power will tell its members not to sign on to, and this is one for Republicans. Pierce said he and others will continue to fight to “ban the box.”
“These are people with unfavorable backgrounds who need an opportunity to get back in their communities and be a part of those communities,” he said. “They already, as we say, paid their debt to society, and they are ready now to begin a new part of their life.”
Former criminal prosecutor Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg, said society puts those with criminal records in an “economic cage.”
“I know the importance of holding people accountable for their conduct, but I also know that it’s possible to go too far and destroy lives for no good reason,” Jackson said. “We need to make sure that we are punishing people in a way that doesn't make them permanently unemployable. Then they are permanently dependent on the state. Nobody wants that.”