RALEIGH, North Carolina — Once each month a conference room in an employment center tucked in the corner of an office park becomes a one-stop shop for second chances.
Scores of people who were formerly incarcerated or have had run-ins with the law come in search of help getting past their record.
During the lunch hour, the visitors circle the room and meet government officials and nonprofit volunteers from the Capital Area Reentry Council, explaining their stories at great length or grabbing pamphlets as fast as they can.
Volunteers from a local nonprofit, the Community Success Initiative, staff a table with neat stacks of yellow brochures that list the pieces in the reentry puzzle: job education, education, housing, human services, mentoring, family engagement and community outreach. Each item comes with a list of options.
Job education can mean job readiness training, resume prep or dress for success classes. Housing can mean earning ready-to-rent certification, securing transitional housing or attending a homebuyer workshop.
At the bottom of the brochure is a note on civic education — the right to vote and engage in the advocacy and electoral process.
Voting may not be a top priority for most people coming out of the criminal justice system, but it matters just the same, said Dennis W. Gaddy, executive director of the local initiative.
The group ensures the formerly incarcerated know their rights and are registered to vote.
“We believe that if you are a citizen, you need to have a voice,” he said.
In nearly every state, citizens lose their right to vote if they are convicted of a felony. The concept, known as felony disenfranchisement, affected an estimated 5.85 million people in 2010, including 82,000 in North Carolina, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization.
And because North Carolina treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, rather than juveniles, that number includes some teens who could lose their right to vote before they even turn 18 years old.
States set different rules for when people convicted of felonies can vote again. In Maine and Vermont, they never lose their rights and can cast absentee ballots while serving prison time. In other states, such as Florida, Kentucky and Iowa, people with felony records cannot vote again unless they successfully petition the governor, a process that can take years and end in a denial.
Most states fall somewhere between. In North Carolina, those with felony records can vote once they’ve completed their full sentence, including imprisonment, parole and probation. It’s a position that puts the state in the middle of the road when it comes to felony voter rights, with no signs of change to make the policy stricter or looser in sight.
At the reentry fair, Diamante Gore, 22, was hoping for help enrolling in community college and finding a job. He worries that when employers see he has checked the box about a criminal record he will not get a second glance, and he knows his lack of a post-secondary degree doesn’t help on the job market.
“You have to have a clean slate,” he said.
The reentry council based in Raleigh is one of 10 that have formed in the state in recent years to help the more than 20,000 people who exit the North Carolina prison system annually.
When a variety of nonprofit groups and government agencies work together, they can avoid duplicating resources and identify gaps in service for people returning to the community, said Frances D. Bisby, a technical services consultant who sits on the council’s steering committee.
One of the group’s goals is to raise awareness about reentry and how difficult it can be to regain a place in society, whether it’s finding a job or casting a vote.
“The fact is formerly incarcerated people continue paying for their crime long after their debt to society has been paid,” Bisby said.
A clean slate
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the members of the reentry council, regularly holds “Clean Slate” clinics to help people with records navigate their options.
At the clinic, attorneys work one-on-one with clients to help them file for certificates of relief and expungements, to sign up to vote and more.
The paperwork is important, but the clinics matter most because they get people in the door to receive critical information and support, said David Hall, a senior staff attorney at the coalition.
The coalition shares information about the history of disenfranchisement based on race or poverty and about ways to promote social justice in the hope of keeping in touch with their clients.
When it comes to voting, the coalition’s lawyers and community organizers often spend time combating misinformation.
“A lot of people think if you’ve got a charge or a felony charge that you can’t vote. Or a lot of people think the voting arena doesn’t play a big role in their lives. So a lot of it is education,” Hall said.
They explain how voting means picking a president but also electing district attorneys, and explain how they can influence city hall or the Legislature.
“We’re trying to get people empowered to know that they can speak to community leaders and have a voice,” he said.
Gore, who has a felony conviction on his record, said he still has a lot to figure out about how to get on his feet. But he is registered to vote and cast his first ballot the day before the fair, in the North Carolina presidential primary.
When he saw how long the line was at his polling station, he was pleased he had made the effort to participate.
“Everyone’s opinions matter,” he said.
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