First Person

Ronald’s Story: ‘People Need Second Chances’

I was arrested in 2004.  I was on the streets with my brother. He was selling drugs, and when the cops came up I said, “Here comes 5-0.” So, they charged me with drugs and possession. And that year I also tried to steal an expensive pocketbook at Neiman Marcus.

Two misdemeanors.  I did no jail time, and my probation was terminated early.  I’ve had no incidents at all since then.

A lot of people think of me simply as an ex-offender, but I refuse to let that define me. Ronald Lewis is a father, a son, a friend, and a very ambitious person who is righting my wrongs. It’s been so long since I made those mistakes and second chances are very important—for me and millions of other Americans.

I have a building engineer license, and I am presently in school so I can start my own company and give second chances by teaching the trade that I went to school for.  It was hard for me to get work even after I trained for my trade.  So many doors have been shut in my face I know what wood tastes like.

The first time was gut-wrenching. I worked at a job for maybe a month, then they called me to the office—Human Resources. And they said, “You are no longer able to work here because of your criminal background.” I told them I was the same person they fell in love with at the interview—until that paperwork from the background check came back. Once the paperwork came back, it was like—“Security get this guy out of the building fast.”

People really do want second chances, but they come home with no hope.

It’s so embarrassing. It’s hard. You finally start to see you’re turning the corner and you’re getting a sense of purpose. Your life is starting to mount and your family is going to be proud of you. But then you have to tell them, “I failed again,” or you just feel like a failure.  It was the worst feeling of my life. The worst.

Since then, there have been numerous times when the background check stopped me from getting a job.  The employer says, “You’ll be great. Your skill level is exactly what we are looking for.” But then there’s that question. It’s like the elephant in the room—I hate that question: “Do you have anything on your background?” And when you tell them, they’re gone.

So we need to shed light on this now—the way things are—and the fact that people need second chances. A lot of people that I run across in school now—there are a lot of people who are ex-offenders in my class.  So on the first day, everybody walked around with a bravado—nobody is talking to anybody else. It’s almost like the jail house mentality. So, the second day of class I stood up and said, “Listen, jail is not going to define us.   Obviously you want a second chance or you wouldn’t have come to school.”

At first they thought I don’t get it.  Because I don’t walk around like jail is a badge of honor. It’s shameful. My mother was shamed, my family name was shamed.  But then when I talk to the other students, we sit down and we have a conversation, and I let them know some of the things that I’ve been through—then they are like, “Okay, I understand. He made it; I can make it.”

My class now has the highest average in school—a 90 average.  And I think my leadership and being able to relate to some of the other students has played a role in that.  And it starts with knowing that people really do want second chances, but they come home with no hope. There’s no hope. So then you resort to what you resort to in order to feed your family. You understand? It’s bad. My community is sad.  And it’s all about hope.

You want to know Ronald Lewis?  Don’t focus on some piece of paper that says I made mistakes ten years ago. Look at all of the positive things I’m putting right in front of you right now.



How Juvenile Records Prevent Youth from Escaping Poverty

J.B. came to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) at age 21, after he had been working as a cashier at a convenience store for five months making minimum wage. He had performed so well as a cashier that he was being considered for a promotion to store manager, which came with a significant raise. His employer ran a criminal background check on him and discovered that J.B. had been adjudicated delinquent—which is a finding of guilt in juvenile court—when he was 16 years old. Despite his excellent job performance and documentation from his former probation officer that he was fully rehabilitated, J.B. was not only denied the promotion, but also lost his cashier job. He has struggled to find steady work ever since, and has been rejected by several more employers due to his juvenile record.

Unfortunately, stories like J.B.’s are all too common in Pennsylvania and across the nation. As a new report and web tool released by the Juvenile Law Center in partnership with CLS reveals, the vast majority of states do not thoroughly protect juvenile records from public view. Furthermore, expungement or sealing of juvenile records does not happen automatically when young people leave the jurisdiction of the juvenile court or reach a certain age. Youth are often not advised of their right to petition for expungement, and many states limit the types of offenses that are eligible. The result is that hundreds of thousands of young people are burdened by juvenile records, unable to move forward with their adult lives and escape poverty.

Even within the legal advocacy community, many people are surprised to learn that juvenile records are so widely available. There is good reason for their surprise – allowing the public to access juvenile record information runs completely counter to the very purpose of the juvenile justice system.

The system was created in order to provide treatment and rehabilitation to young people. Experts ranging from neuroscientists to Supreme Court justices have acknowledged that youth are less able than adults to understand the consequences of their actions, make sound decisions, and resist the pull of peer pressure. But because their brains are still developing, they are also particularly capable of significant transformation. So it makes good sense—both for youth and society as a whole—to maintain a separate system for rehabilitating youth and then to support them as they transition to adulthood.

Allowing the public to access juvenile record information runs completely counter to the very purpose of the juvenile justice system.

Yet despite the original purpose of the juvenile justice system, during the “tough on crime” era many states rolled back the rehabilitative aspects of their systems in favor of a more punitive approach. As a result, confidentiality protections for juvenile records were weakened, and there is now a tendency to view juvenile adjudications as equivalent to adult criminal convictions. This era also ushered in a period of criminalizing youth for many behaviors that in the past would have been handled in school or at home. For example, one CLS client was issued several criminal citations for disorderly conduct because she had gotten into verbal arguments in the school hallway with a male student who was harassing her. This over-criminalization has disproportionately impacted low-income youth, youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBT youth, making it even more difficult for these already vulnerable and underserved young people to connect with meaningful economic opportunities.

The time is ripe for change. Cities and states around the country are struggling to address a youth unemployment crisis—the youth unemployment rate is as much as four times the unemployment rate for adults. As policymakers seek to connect low-income youth with the education, job training, and employment opportunities they need in order to be successful in today’s economy, it is also time for states to revisit their juvenile records laws.

In particular, states should ensure that juvenile records are rarely, if ever, accessible to the public; that youth are given information about their rights and how to get their records expunged; and that records are either automatically or easily expunged when youth leave the supervision of the juvenile court.  These three reforms would ensure that youth who have been rehabilitated are able to move forward with their lives.

There are countless young people like J.B. around the country who have the potential to move out of poverty and want desperately to work.  We as a society just need to let them.




Mass Incarceration and the Health of Our Communities

Earlier this year, Jerome Murdough—a homeless veteran charged with trespassing—died after being left unchecked for hours in a sweltering cell in New York City’s Rikers Island Jail mental observation unit.  His death showed us what can occur when medical, social service, and criminal justice systems fail to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals. Stories like Murdoch’s, or those of other inmates with mental illnesses who are featured in the New York Times series “Locked In”—cast in high relief the challenges we face when reconciling punishment and the treatment of those who are incarcerated, especially people with mental illness.

This is not an issue unique to New York City. Across the country, people with mental health needs are too often warehoused in overcrowded, chaotic, and violent correctional facilities rather than treated in the community.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), however, presents a tremendous opportunity to address this national crisis and ensure that patients like Murdough don’t end up on Rikers Island. The ACA provides one of the largest expansions of mental health coverage in U.S. history—extending it to 27 million people who previously lacked health insurance—and a wider range of benefits to 62 million U.S. citizens overall. Millions of uninsured, undertreated, and destitute people cycling through correctional systems will be covered for the first time.

This expansion of treatment opportunities, coupled with bipartisan agreement that we need a comprehensive overhaul of the criminal justice system, presents a rare opportunity for reform that we can and must seize.

The criminal justice system has expanded to such a degree that mass incarceration is now one of the major public health concerns facing poor communities, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Since the 1970s, state prison populations in the U.S. have grown by 700 percent. Yet the nation’s overuse of incarceration succumbed to the law of diminishing returns long ago—creating more harm than good—with widening disparities in health as one of the results.

The concentration of incarceration and the omnipresence of the criminal justice system in the lives of residents in poor communities of color are well documented.  Now research is starting to reveal the extent to which mass incarceration impacts community health. For example, decades of disparate exposure to incarceration among communities of color has fractured families and exacerbated socioeconomic inequities in ways that have contributed to wider gaps in infant mortality rates between black and white Americans.

Investments are needed in order to stop relying on jails and courts as default healthcare providers.

The criminalization of addiction and mental illness is a core driver of overall health disparities in the criminal justice system. The War on Drugs in essence delegated to criminal justice agencies what should be the responsibility of our community health system. As a result, people coping with serious clinical conditions are gravely overrepresented in correctional facilities. Yet the traditional punitive tactics that corrections departments too frequently turn to—such as solitary confinement—tend to promote the very behavioral problems that lead to incarceration.

There are signs that the social and political climate is changing. U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have reached across the aisle to work on federal legislation that aims to remove the stigma and legal barriers that prevent millions of Americans with a drug conviction from securing employment and public benefits. Additionally, state officials are pursing legislative and programmatic solutions to trim their prison populations: A recent Vera study found that more than 29 states have amended, scaled down, or repealed laws that mandated lengthy prison sentences for drug and other crimes.

But undoing mass incarceration’s public health crisis will require more than changing sentencing laws and providing people with health insurance. We also need state and local investments to establish a robust network of community health centers and a culturally competent workforce in neighborhoods where mass incarceration is most entrenched.  These investments are needed in order to stop relying on jails and courts as default healthcare providers.

This strategy is being pursued in New York City, where Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a sweeping plan to prevent people with mental health needs from ending up at Rikers Island when they encounter law enforcement. The plan includes the opening of a Public Health Diversion Center, under the auspices of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It would redirect people to community-based services—in lieu of arrest and prosecution—in communities where health disparities and incarceration are most prevalent. The diversion center would include a 24-hour drop-off location where people accused of low-level crimes could receive health services, withdrawal treatment, case management, overnight shelter, and food.

Finally, we need our political leaders to repeal unjustly harsh policies that deprive individuals who have served their time—and their families—of a fair chance at finding secure housing, entering the labor market, and rising out of poverty.

Momentum is building in the right direction. Ending mass incarceration and restoring the health of our communities is a mission that we all must get behind.




Mapping the Extraordinary Growth in State Prison Populations

This interactive map charts the huge growth in state prison populations in recent decades and its growing impact on state budgets.  Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs; in 36 states, they’ve more than tripled as a share of the overall population since 1978.  Total state corrections spending rose from $20 billion to over $47 billion between 1986 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation.

State economies would be much stronger over time if states invested more in education —which many states have cut in recent years — and other areas that can boost long-term economic growth and less in maintaining extremely high prison populations.  Our recent report discusses how states can reduce incarceration rates and shift the savings to more productive uses.




Reducing Jail: A New York Story

We are living through a fascinating moment in terms of criminal justice policy in the United States.

When I first started working in criminal justice in the early 1990s, it was almost impossible to have a conversation with an elected official or a high-ranking criminal justice policymaker of any political persuasion without talking about the need to be “tough on crime.”  The backdrop for these conversations was a pervasive sense of fear (of lawlessness on the streets) and despair (about the prospects of successfully rehabilitating offenders).

Today, I turned on my computer to discover that Newt Gingrich has endorsed the idea of reducing incarceration in the United States.  He is not the only voice on the right calling for change.  Indeed, hopeful analysts have cited criminal justice reform as one of the few potential areas where Democrats and Republicans in Washington might find common ground in the final two years of President Obama’s term.  Clearly, the center of gravity has shifted in terms of the politics of crime.

A lot of hard work has gone into making this happen. The “justice reinvestment” movement has played a particularly crucial role, advancing a bipartisan approach to criminal justice that relies on hard data rather than the politics of emotion.  The U.S. Department of Justice has also made an important contribution by documenting what works and then disseminating this information to the field (

These national-level efforts have been bolstered by numerous reformers working at the state and local level to demonstrate that it is in fact possible to reduce the use of incarceration without undermining public safety.

Take New York, for example.  Between 1999 and 2012, New York reduced its prison population by 26 percent—a decline of nearly 20,000 inmates.  The use of jail in New York City has also been reduced—the daily head count on Rikers Island is now less than 11,000, down from more than 21,000 at its peak.

Even as New York’s jail and prison rolls have gone down, so too has crime, declining by 69 percent over two decades.

Most of the public acclaim for these developments has gone to the New York Police Department and New York City mayors who have made crime-fighting a priority. Under the radar, the judicial branch has also played an important role.

Thanks to the leadership of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his predecessor Judith S. Kaye, the New York courts have made a sustained institutional commitment to creating a variety of alternative-to-incarceration programs.  The courts have developed special programs for defendants with substance abuse and mental health problems.  They have sought to increase the use of services in cases involving 16 and 17-year old defendants and victims of human trafficking.  And they have launched a number of community-based programs that have sought to promote alternative sentencing in high-crime neighborhoods. (In the interests of full disclosure, my agency—the Center for Court Innovation— has worked with the judiciary to conceive and implement many of these projects.)

Crucially, the alternative programs launched by the New York courts target not just felony defendants but also people charged with misdemeanors.  Misdemeanor convictions may expose defendants to less time behind bars, but the consequences can be long-lasting in terms of employment, housing, child custody, student loans, immigration status, and a host of government benefits. For many, a misdemeanor conviction is another step along a path that leads toward a life of poverty.

While much of the popular discussion focuses on federal sentencing guidelines and the need to reduce state prison populations, there is significant work to be done at the local level to reduce the use of jail.  (Jails are typically administered by counties and are designed to hold defendants awaiting trial and inmates sentenced to a term of less than 1 year. Prisons are run by the state or the federal government and typically hold inmates serving sentences of more than 1 year.)

One of the hidden truths of the justice system is that minor cases are much more voluminous than serious offenses. As John Jay College recently documented, nearly 75 percent of the arrests that the police make in New York City are for misdemeanor crimes – more than 235,000 in 2012, for example.

In response to the preponderance of minor cases, the New York courts (with an assist from the Center for Court Innovation) created Bronx Community Solutions to provide criminal court judges in the Bronx with additional sentencing options for non-violent offenses such as drug possession, shoplifting and prostitution.  This includes community restitution projects as well as social service classes, job training and individual counseling.

One challenge that has long plagued alternative-to-incarceration programs is the Field of Dreams question: if you build it, will they come?  Will judges actually avail themselves of alternatives?

The experience in the Bronx suggests that when alternative programs have been developed with the active involvement of the judiciary, they are more likely to win the support of the judges on the ground who ultimately determine whether someone is incarcerated or stays in the community.  According to the New York City Mayor’s Office, after Bronx Community Solutions began offering alternative sentences to misdemeanor defendants in the Bronx, the percentage of convicted defendants sentenced to jail fell from 23.7 percent in 2004 to 13.5 percent in 2012—a 43 percent reduction.  Keep in mind, this is not a boutique program dealing with a handful of participants; each year Bronx Community Solutions works with about 9,000 defendants.

But this battle is by no means won—plenty of work remains to reduce the number of people in Rikers Island, particularly those who are detained pre-trial.  However, Bronx Community Solutions has made one thing perfectly clear: change is possible—even in high-volume, urban justice systems.