Problems and Solutions

Lauren Johnson, an alum of Conspire Theatre, continues her weekly series with an examination of the stigma of carrying a drug-related felony. 

When I was younger I wanted to be a nurse or doctor. Once I had a felony conviction on my record, especially since it was a drug conviction, I knew that the chances of that happening were slim to none. I understand the reasoning behind that. Although I did check into it and there are no rules specifically excluding me from getting a nursing license, there are also no guarantees. For a very long time, I felt such a stigma associated with the label that comes with my criminal history that it never occurred to me to question the fairness of it. Searching for a job is already such a tedious task and add to it the thoughtfulness that you have to put into the plethora of possible questions related to criminal history and it becomes very overwhelming.

Yesterday, a status showed up on my Facebook page for a story KVUE reporter Keli Rabon had done for their “Defenders” series. The title of the investigative report: Sex Offenders and the City. The teaser for the story included a line that said “So how did people with criminal histories end up on the City of Austin payroll?” I was immediately furious. I don’t understand why people with criminal histories having employment with the city is something worthy of a “Defenders” investigative report. I think if they lied on the application then, yes maybe there should be consequences for that. The fact that the city has hired felons is only news worthy if they are getting a commendation for it. I say give all the criminals jobs! That is a fabulous idea! I am pleased to note that there were several comments left aside from mine voicing a similar opinion on the same points.

In 2008 the city council voted to remove the criminal history question from job applications. That was a small victory that allowed people like me to get our feet in the door and at least make it into an interview before being judged. However some positions still require a criminal background check, and understandably so. I do think that criminal histories should be like a credit report, give me 7 years to prove I can be a law abiding citizen and then let it go and allow me the opportunity to have bigger dreams, and a reality where I can achieve them.

In 1996 the laws changed so that anyone that received a felony drug conviction after 1996, could NEVER receive public assistance resources such as TANF and food stamps. Again, the stigma of my label prevented me from questioning this policy until I was writing a college paper on the obstacles felons face. I read something about this policy that mentioned how it discriminated against people with a drug problem and not someone that committed murder or any other felony. That really rubbed me the wrong way. It is wrong on so many levels. I understand the well meaning ideas behind passing this law, but it is deeply flawed. If we are going to discriminate then why not do it across the board for all convicted felons? Obviously that isn’t what I would want. I think the law is not inherently bad, but place a time limit on it. Also, even though not everyone one who gets arrested gets arrested for a drug related offense, doesn’t mean they don’t use , it just means that isn’t what they were caught for. My experience is that the majority of people who are incarcerated have used or abused drugs and alcohol.

I have had to apply for food stamps a couple of times while my husband was in between jobs, which may surprise you since I have shared with you that we both have felony drug convictions on our record, but this is just another example of just how flawed this law is. I can go into the Department of Health and Human Services and, provided that we meet the other eligibility guidelines such as income, then we can get benefits for our children. So they don’t trust me to have a card with benefits on it for myself, but since my children are minors they hand me a card with benefits on it for them. ( Don’t tell them this, but I eat the food that those benefits buy too, shh!) Each of the times that I have found myself in those offices I get irate about the insanity of it all. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to put that to use.

I am now a registered voter (once you are off of parole and probation you are again allowed to vote) and while I typically don’t have much faith in our elected officials, I now understand that they are more likely to listen to what I have to say if I am a voting citizen. So I made some phone calls to several different Senators’ offices. I had to leave messages, and think that it is important to note that only one office called me back. Senator Watson’s office called me back and gave me information about an upcoming meeting where Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow will be speaking. I intend to attend this event so that I can get plugged in with people who are already working towards changing these things. I realize that in all probability most of the people there will be coming at these issues from a different angle, that being one of racial discrimination, but that is of no consequence to me. Discrimination is discrimination! The staffer that sent me the information was very excited to speak to me and sounded very sincere when she instructed me to call her office back with any ideas that I came up with so that we could move forward from there. I know that things won’t change overnight, but I intend to get up and do something towards the solution instead of sitting around and complaining about it. I will not be part of the problem any more!

-Lauren Johnson

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