Jerry Blassingame’s story is now familiar to many people working in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector in Greenville County. He was studying to get his architecture degree from Greenville Tech and was working when he began selling drugs to make ends meet. He soon found that business as a drug dealer was far more lucrative than his prospects as an architect – until he got caught. He was sent to prison for felony possession with intent to distribute and spent four years at the state penitentiary in the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
While there, he became connected to a pastor and his Christian faith and was determined to map out his path for when he completed his sentence. He realized that even though he would have paid for his crime with his time in prison, he had numerous obstacles ahead, including an inability to get a loan for college or become professionally licensed in South Carolina, not to mention challenges obtaining housing or any job with a conviction on his record.
Knowing the challenges that he and tens of thousands of other formerly incarcerated individuals face, Jerry founded Soteria Community Development Corporation, which creates jobs and opportunities for those who have completed their prison sentence and are looking to begin life (click here to view Jerry’s presentation).
Even though Soteria CDC is doing incredible work in the Greenville area, the problem is massive. The September 2018 GPP meeting looked at the topic of reentry and criminal record expungement and what funders can do to help.
Mass incarceration in the United States is a human rights issue impacting more than 2.3 million adults and youth, along with their families and victims. Over 70 million people in the U.S. have convictions on their records, and 1/3 of black males (compared to 1/17 of white males) born after 2001 is likely to in prison at some point in his lifetime.
The societal costs of imprisonment are high – $20,925 in South Carolina to incarcerate on person (in 2017), with a total yearly cost of $442 million. But because of approximately 48,000 laws and statutes on the books related to criminal records, those who’ve completed their sentence continue to be punished with fines, homelessness, minimal job opportunities, lack of transportation, and more. Over 60% of people remain unemployed a year after release.
Fred Turner spoke to the group about his experience defying those odds. He was released from prison in October 2017 and came to Greenville with nothing – not even a driver’s license or ID or any kind. Through Soteria, he was connected with Kevin Feeney, owner of the Kitchen Sync on Laurens road in Greenville. Fred says Kevin was a little leery about hiring him, but once Kevin met him, he gave Jerry a position as a dishwasher. Since then, he’s moved up to prep cook and will soon take SafeServ training. “Kevin gave me the chance to be a member of society and not just a number,” Fred declared. “I’m living proof that giving an opportunity can make a difference, and now I can make it in society as a positive individual.”
Still, Fred’s story is far too rare. Joe Brewer, Assistant US Attorney with the US Attorney’s Office, SC District, pointed that only Rwanda incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than the United States. Joe said, “We’ve had the luxury of championing being ‘tough on crime,’ because that’s an easy and not divisive issue. But now we have to recognize that those people we were tough on are our neighbors and family members. And they have few prospects once their sentence is complete.”
Joe also pointed out that the racial divide in incarceration rates means that it’s a hidden issue for some communities but front and center for others.
But he believes that South Carolina is uniquely positioned to show the country how to handle reentry in a way that is compassionate and economically successful. “Our cultural mores and sensibilities, our business community with its international perspective, the response here of our Chamber of Commerce, Mayor’s office, and private industry all indicate that we are on the right track.”
A shining example of South Carolina’s opportunities in being a model for reentry was the recently passed bill on record expungement. H3209, or the “Workforce Expansion Act,” passed through a successful override of a veto from Governor McMaster and expands the offenses eligible for expungement from the record to include felony drug possession after three years (without any other arrests) and expands the youthful offender act.
Senator Karl Allen, who was first elected to the SC House of Representatives in 2001 and has served in the SC Senate since 2013, was a key figure in getting the bill passed. “3209 didn’t just happen. It took years of work to bring the bill to fruition,” said Senator Allen. “We were listening to the constituency.” Jerry and Senator Allen acknowledged that there had been attempts at addressing expungement in the past, but they didn’t go far enough. “To enact policy that will make a difference in the topics you care about, those of you in the room have got to engage,” Senator Allen told the funders present.
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce joined Soteria and Senator Allen in leading the charge to pass the expungement bill. Carlos Phillips, President and CEO of the Chamber, said that expungement had been on the Chamber’s radar for some time but within its diversity and inclusion agenda. But in today’s economy with 3% unemployment and numerous open jobs, the Chamber had heard from its members that expungement was an economic issue.
“We need an expanded workforce in Greenville County, but not for the positions you can recruit from outside of the community, so we needed to dig deeper within the community and get people off the bench and into the work game.”
The Chamber played the role of convener and leveraged its megaphone to point out the moral and economic imperatives for the bill.
Bridget Brown, staff attorney with the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, remarked that politics do at times make strange bedfellows. Her organization, which acts as the voice for low income South Carolinians for social, legal, and economic justice, has enjoyed a strong partnership with both very conservative organizations as well as more progressive groups on expungement legislation. She noted, “Something like this doesn’t have to be a political issue when, from any perspective, it just makes sense.”
Senator Allen agreed, and said, “It’s not a notion of being hard on crime. It’s being smart on crime.”
Now that it has passed with an effective date of 12/27/18, the work of implementation begins. Carlos said when Kentucky’s expungement bill passed, 70,000 people’s records became eligible for expungement. In some states, eligible offenses fall off the record automatically, but in South Carolina (as many advocates involved in the bill’s passage have discovered), the process may be a challenging one.
Bridget works on a daily basis with individuals whose records are now eligible for expungement. She described the challenges ahead even though the law has passed. If a person committed a crime in Charleston County, but now lives in Greenville County, he has to travel to Charleston to determine if he’s eligible for expungement. He needs to complete paperwork and file a $310 fee for the local solicitor to review his eligibility. If indeed he is eligible – which he could wait many months to learn, as at least the Greenville County Solicitor’s Office already has a big backlog – the request is forwarded to SLED. It will then review the particulars and make its own determination of whether the record is to be expunged and, if so, will take care of the technical aspects of doing so.
Several efforts are underway in Greenville County and the state to remove some of these barriers. The Chamber has convened an expungement implementation task force to turn the bill’s opportunities into action. One of those opportunities is the establishment of a fund at the Solicitor’s Office to defray the filing costs for individuals wishing to begin the expungement process. The Chamber has also engaged Code for Greenville, a group of tech volunteers who give of their time to use technology to make government better for people. The national Code for America has made “Clean Slate” (the automatic expungement of eligible records using digital capabilities) a priority, and Greenville is looking for lessons to apply locally.
The specific tasks and opportunities are still emerging, but funders, companies, and faith partners will have several ways to help. Anyone can contribute to the fund when it is established. Funders may also be needed to support the infrastructure and planning needed for implementation. If policy or administrative obstacles prove challenging, funders can use their voices to call for change. Faith communities will be important partners in raising awareness of people who were formerly incarcerated that they may be eligible for expungement. And businesses can join in with the “ban the box” movement, eliminating the checkbox related to criminal records on the application.
In considering how well our state responds to the opportunity presented by H3209, Senator Allen quoted the late Senator Clemente Pinckney in saying, “The eyes of the nation are watching South Carolina. What will they see?”