Group Pushes to Loosen Limits on Ex-Inmates
Co-founder says society is 'throwing a lot of good people away.' Politicians are tackling the issue.
By Lee Romney, Times Staff Writer
March 3, 2006
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — For years, Dorsey Nunn informally compiled the grievances of other former prisoners denied housing, frozen out of job interviews or abruptly fired years after they had done their time.
But when his wife, also formerly incarcerated, was rejected no-questions-asked as a volunteer in one of this crime-pocked city's neediest elementary schools, he decided he'd had enough. How, Nunn asked, could he and millions of other felons contribute to society if society no longer wanted them?
From his frustration came All of Us or None, an organization of the formerly incarcerated now pressing for change in the Bay Area, Southern California and beyond.
"You shouldn't be able to stand on our neck forever," said Nunn, 54, a stocky man with manic energy and a belly laugh equal parts bitter and naive. "People are programmed to see us as the boogeyman, and they're throwing away a lot of good people."
Imprisoned for a 1971 robbery that ended with his accomplice killing a man, Nunn clawed his way to respectability after his release.
Today, the group he co-founded adds a voice that has been oddly absent in a critical national debate, as policymakers and legislators on both sides of the aisle ponder the challenges of former inmates' reentry into society.
All of Us or None is helping eligible former offenders in the Bay Area clear their criminal records — giving them a better shot at stable employment.
There's also the campaign to prod cities and counties to remove a question about convictions from initial job application forms. (The group just won its biggest victory when San Francisco became the first city in California to agree.) And there is the push for voting rights for county jail inmates from San Francisco to San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, members have set out to help their own, donating bikes to kids of the incarcerated and welcoming new parolees into their homes. (They also found private lodging for Hurricane Katrina evacuees with criminal records that prevented them from securing long-term public help.)
"We demand to move forward," said David Lewis, who co-founded an East Palo Alto drug and alcohol recovery center with Nunn that is helping All of Us or None in its effort. "No one needs to speak for us anymore. We can speak for ourselves."
About 650,000 inmates will return home this year from state and federal prisons, according to the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Nationwide there are an estimated 13 million adults who have served time. In California, one in five adults has a criminal record on file.
President Bush underscored the need to reassimilate the formerly incarcerated in his 2004 State of the Union address, calling for $300 million in spending on reentry initiatives.
The bipartisan "Second Chance Act" pending in Congress bolsters such efforts and would require states to analyze the laws that create "collateral consequences" — barriers to employment, student loans and public housing — long after sentences have been served.
Laws limiting the rights of felons and governing which offenses may be expunged vary widely from state to state.
Mayors and state legislatures, including California's, are increasingly tackling the possibility of changes in this arena, hoping that greater opportunities will reduce recidivism. By all accounts, pressing the issue requires a politically volatile balancing of individual and societal rights.
Although recidivism rates are high, Nunn and others attribute that largely to persistent discrimination and lack of opportunity that channel offenders back into crime. Victims' rights groups and employer organizations counter that the law-abiding have a right to full disclosure, even if that means the debts of felons are never fully paid.
"Would you want a rapist working as a janitor at a woman's dress store? You need to be aware," said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California. "Why are we protecting them and not protecting ourselves?"
Nunn bristles at such comments, comparing his group's uphill climb to the mountain scaled by the likes of civil rights greats Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Currently, he says, people raised in pockets of crime and addiction are denied the chance at productive futures long after they have paid for their mistakes.
Nunn grew up in East Palo Alto, a low-income and predominantly African American community surrounded by Silicon Valley affluence.
Like many in the city — who speak of "catching a case" as one might catch a cold — Nunn had entered prison by 19. There, he trained as a paralegal and was paroled nearly 12 years later.
What moved him most was the fate of children with parents behind bars. In time he became program director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, managing a hefty annual budget. His input was welcomed by policymakers, but he said his was a token voice. That, he decided, had to change.
Linda Evans, a former member of the radical Weather Underground pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office, concluded the same.
As an educated white woman from a middle-class family, she had "privilege in this society," she said, but was "flabbergasted by the amount of discrimination" her fellow inmates faced.
She and Nunn teamed up, choosing the group's name from a Bertolt Brecht poem of the same title.
Slave, who is it that shall free
Those in deepest darkness
Comrade, only these can see
Only they can hear you
Comrade, only slaves can free
Everything or nothing. All of
us or none.
In March 2003, they gathered formerly incarcerated activists from around the state at an Oakland summit.
Stories poured forth from people such as Cassandra Wilson, fired from Stanford Hospital's radiology department after 10 years of solid performance.
Her drug-related petty theft felony — which she said she left off her initial application on the advice of others — came to light after a stolen ring in another department prompted criminal background checks on all employees.
"I was traumatized," said Wilson, 52, "I thought, 'Here I am, I have straightened up my life in every aspect. I'm going to church. I'm paying taxes. I'm a model employee, and all of a sudden this is what I get.' "
Other summits would follow — in San Bernardino, New Orleans and East Palo Alto. All of Us or None chapters have also opened in Los Angeles, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The greatest effect, however, has been in East Palo Alto.
At Nunn's urging, the San Mateo County private defender's office and Stanford Community Law Clinic are helping to expunge the criminal records of hundreds of eligible residents of the city.
(On her own, Wilson had her felony reduced to a misdemeanor and expunged. She is now working another job.)
Nunn's group had already teamed up with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and the nonprofit East Bay Community Law Center for a similar Oakland record-clearing event. Lee said her office expected a few hundred people. Nearly 1,000 began lining up before 6 a.m.
The center now offers regular record-clearing services.
The remedy has its limits. Although misdemeanors, marijuana possession and select felonies can be expunged, other convictions cannot. Even expunged cases, however, often turn up in Internet-based criminal record searches conducted with growing frequency by employers. And felonies like Nunn's remain in full view forever.
That, Nunn and Evans say, turned the group's most urgent focus to employment. Their first foray into politics proved successful: a resolution before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that urged the Human Resources Department to remove the box about convictions from initial employment applications.
Approved in concept by the supervisors and refined by San Francisco's Civil Service Commission last month, the policy would not prevent the city from looking into criminal histories, and upfront disclosure would still be necessary in job categories for which state law requires it.
But in most cases, only finalists would fill out a criminal history questionnaire once they had secured an interview. Hiring officers would only be able to consider convictions related to job duties, and applicants could appeal if they believed they were improperly excluded.
The victory came after dozens of felons filled board chambers, and Nunn and Evans worked behind the scenes to hammer out details with Civil Service commissioners. Along the way, they recruited some powerful allies, including longtime San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey.
San Francisco's move comes on the heels of a broader Boston ordinance passed in October. That law prohibits the city from contracting with any private employer who discriminates against applicants with criminal records unrelated to job duties.
New York City and New York state also have nondiscrimination policies, although a recent study showed that minority job-seekers with records were much more likely to be denied employment in New York City than white counterparts.
For All of Us or None, the process has proved "our civics lesson," said Nunn, a great-grandfather whose beard now shows hints of gray.
At a recent meeting in an East Palo Alto church — where 90% of the congregation, including the pastor, are formerly incarcerated — he promised more.
Nunn pulled cash from his pocket to help buy a winter coat for a community member sentenced to prison for killing her abusive boyfriend — and recently paroled after All of Us or None secured a City Council resolution welcoming her back.
He urged the one former prisoner in the room with paralegal training to help with the record- clearing project.
Then Nunn turned up the fire.
"We recognize that 98% of us plead guilty," he said. "But none of us bargained that we were going to throw away our lives. We never made a bargain that … we would never get a job, that we would never get public housing.
"This is our lunch counter. What we're engaged in is bigger than everyone in this room."
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