Advocates for the formerly incarcerated tout reform agenda to state lawmakers

The North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a criminal justice reform group, held a virtual day of advocacy on Tuesday, with attendees proposing a ten point policy agenda aimed at improving conditions for recently-incarcerated people.

Organizers screened a video with testimonies from members describing their experiences with reentry post-incarceration. Speakers discussed difficulty finding employment, being denied housing and the looming worry of court fines and fees.

“Just because you have an experience that might be a bad decision you may have made, you shouldn’t be punished for the rest of your life for that,” Alexander Williams, an organizer with the Second Chance Alliance said. “You deserve opportunities, you deserve equal access,  the quality of life that everybody else does.”

The group’s 2021 advocacy agenda includes a variety of policy initiatives, from increasing eligibility for criminal record expungements to reinstating voting rights for those with felony convictions.

Last year, the organization successfully championed the Second Chance Act, a reform bill automating the expungement of certain dismissed or “not guilty” criminal charges. The bill made it through the General Assembly with unanimous support and was signed by Governor Roy Cooper last June.

“Once a person has been entangled in that system and feels like they still have that target on their back, like they cannot move freely through life — that’s a burden,” Diana Powell, an organizer with Second Chance Alliance said. “And so I believe that a person that has an opportunity to have their record expunged… I feel like they have a new lease on life.”

Organizers of Tuesday’s event say the state still has a long way to go on reform — with laws like the North Carolina Drug Tax and the ban on SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits for people with felony convictions still on the books.

Sangria Noble, coordinator for Second Chance Alliance, described her own struggle finding work as a peer support specialist post-incarceration. Despite her degree and experience, Noble found herself routinely turned down for jobs.

“Once you get to my record,” she said. “I’m out the door.”

The Second Chance Alliance’s policy recommendations on employment include delaying or eliminating questions about criminal background until a job offer is given.

The event also highlighted the disproportionate impact that the criminal justice system has on Black and Brown Americans. Keith Rivers, the president of the Pasquotank County NAACP spoke about the recent police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., an unarmed Black man, in Elizabeth City.

“We are demanding justice through transparency, trust [and] accountability,” Rivers said. “Because we know when those three things are done, then justice will be served for Andrew Brown Jr. and his family.”

Another part of the Second Chance Alliance’s policy agenda would require the release of police body camera footage upon request, within 48 hours of the recording. They also advocate for the use of citizen’s review boards to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

The event ended with a musical performance from some of the groups members after speakers shared their final thoughts on reforming the justice system.

“People should be granted second chances,” Williams said. “Because you’re not the sum of your mistakes.”

Kyle Ingram is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.

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