Episode 34: #UnlockingOpportunity

This week we bring you some highlights from the “Unlocking Opportunity for People with Records and Their Families” conference. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

Today, one in three Americans has some type of criminal record, many convicted of only minor offenses — and some have only arrests that never even led to conviction. But having even a minor record can create lifelong barriers to employment, housing, education, and more, making even a minor record a life sentence to poverty. This week, leaders from communities across the US descended upon Washington for a convening dedicated to unlocking opportunity for people with records. This week Off-Kilter shares highlights from that convening, including conversations with Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, whose Second Chance Society provides a national model; JustLeadershipUSA founder Glenn Martin on the role of language in this work and particularly the importance of using language that humanizes people who are too often demonized; and Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, a rising star in the House of Representatives who just announced she’ll be bringing “clean slate” legislation from the Pennsylvania legislature to the halls of Congress. But first, Jeremy Slevin returns with the news of the week, in case you missed it.

This week’s guests:

  • Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy
  • Glenn Martin, President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA
  • Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester

For more on this week’s topics:

This program aired on October 27, 2017.

Transcript of show:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week over 100 advocates from communities across the country descended upon Washington to talk about how to remove barriers to opportunity for the 1 in 3 Americans with criminal records, as well as their children and their families. We’ll bring you some of the highlights of those conversations and some of the most powerful moments from that convening throughout today’s episode. But first because there’s lost of other stuff going on this week, Jeremy Slevin, the Slevs, the Slevinator has joined us. I said that different than I usually do.

JEREMY SLEVIN: Well, I got three names that time.

VALLAS: You did.

SLEVIN: That’s more than the usually 1 to 2.

VALLAS: Well maybe I’m feeling three times as pepped about what you’re going to say but I called you the Slevinator, which was like, I don’t know, I don’t know how I feel about it.

SLEVIN: I thought that’s the new official name.

VALLAS: I’m going to make it happen. So Slevinator, what else was going on this week? A lot with the budget and the tax fight.

SLEVIN: Yes, so big movement on the tax front this week. Of course the big fight now is over Republican’s plans to pass a tax bill from what we know right now about 80% of the tax cuts would go to the 1%, this deeply regressive tax plan. And the last week, the [Senate] advanced a budget that would allow for $1.5 trillion in deficit increasing tax cuts and this week the House took it up. And we thought this would glide through the House and a lot of people were saying let’s not engage on this because the tax fight is, the actually tax legislation later is where the real fight comes. It turns out Republicans barely passed it. They lost 20 Republicans and they can only lose 22 total. So they were just three short of not passing this at all. And it was a lot of moderate, so-called moderate blue state Republicans who were very concerned that this raises, it eliminates state and local tax deductions, which would raise taxes on a lot of middle class families in more progressive states. So overall we’ve seen 28 Republicans in the House vote against their own budget. This includes an earlier budget so this tax fight, it looks a lot more risky than it did earlier this week.

VALLAS: Now the significance of what happened this week, we actually talked last week on the show about what the Senate had done as you mentioned, the Senate did what it needed to do, stepped up to the plate, moved the budget forward, that was sent to the House. The House now has passed that same budget and so now we’re in a place where both the House and the Senate, I know this gets wonky but I think it’s helpful to understand, both chambers have taken the steps they need to authorize fast track authority for the Senate to now ram through tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires and corporations without a single Democratic vote.

SLEVIN: Yeah, I think the key takeaway is that now it is go time.

VALLAS: The fight is actually on.

SLEVIN: They have laid the groundwork to pass a tax bill with no Democratic support. They barely got that by, so this is a very winnable fight. But the next big fight we’re going to see next week the House is unveiling the actual tax legislation which we expect will largely help the wealthy if it looks like anything we’ve seen before.

VALLAS: And I didn’t mean to gloss over your good news piece of that buried in all of this right now the fight is on but the fight is very much in play in ways that we didn’t even see in the health care fight at this stage of the game because of what you said. We’ve got all of these House Republicans who are actually on record as having opposed some version of the underlying budget that now has actually been passed. And that’s important here to think about because there are a lot more steps left that the House and Senate have to take before these tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations actually become law.

SLEVIN: And I think what’s notable is that a lot of them were opposing it because of the tax provisions. It’s very easy to say, “we’re going to pass giant tax cuts. We’re going to pass a tax cut that helps the middle class.” When you actually get to a plan that eliminates many deductions that middle class families tax advantage of, raises taxes on 47 million Americans and most of the rest of the cuts we know will go to the wealthy, it can get hard for even Republican members who are otherwise conservative to support a plan that would raise taxes on a lot of their state.

VALLAS: And we talked about this a lot last week but we would be remiss if we didn’t remind folks that what now the House and Senate have both authorized is not just massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, but paid for by jacking up the deficit in huge, huge ways. The deficit that for years Republicans have claimed to hate but now when the rubber meets the road and the deficit increase that they’re thinking about is to pay for tax cuts for the wealth and corporations, their donor class, apparently they don’t hate the deficit anymore.

SLEVIN: Yes, I think there is no greater hypocrisy than how Speaker Paul Ryan, who built his career on screaming about the coming debt crisis who is now leading the effort to massively increase the deficit by trillions and trillions of dollars.

VALLAS: Well stay tuned for next week because that’s where we’re going to, as Jeremy said, see a lot more of the details on what these tax cuts look like for millionaires and corporations and we’ll all be watching that closely here at Off Kilter. But that’s not the only thing that happened this week, Jeremy. There are actually, believe it or not, other things going on in the news. What else did we miss this week?

SLEVIN: So also on the hill the Senate by a narrow vote, it was 50–50 and Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie breaking vote. They passed legislation which would roll back rules that allowed consumers to file class action suits against banks and large financial institutions and this was after really heavy lobbying from the banking industry. It came out just today that the financial lobby met with Mike Pence just before the vote to win his vote, not that I think Mike Pence was really up in the air. But basically a lot of these financial companies have these clauses called forced arbitration clauses that don’t allow consumers to sue their banks if they’re screwed over and it’s a vehicle to strip many consumers of their rights and now it’s allowed again.

VALLAS: I’m channeling Ian Milhiser, our sort of justice correspondent for the show because whenever he talks about eroding access to class actions and forced arbitration, all of which sounds really wonky, gets into kind of legalese words that aren’t even really English but what this really is doing Jeremy, if I’m getting this right is basically shutting the doors to the courthouse for millions upon millions of Americans who will have no effective legal recourse when big companies like many of the ones that actually brought about the financial downturn just a few years ago, step all over their rights and make decisions that benefit their shareholders over the American people.

SLEVIN: Right and we saw this play out in the financial crisis, whether it was through foreclosures or many other nefarious tactics of the banking industry and one of the things Dodd-Frank tried to do was make it easier for consumers to have rights.

VALLAS: To have rights, right, it sounds nice to me.

SLEVIN: Pretty simple.

VALLAS: A distant memory apparently at this point. So also in the news this week, Trump has finally declared a national emergency around the opioid crisis, so isn’t that a rare piece of good news, Jeremy?

SLEVIN: Uh, I would like to say so but what he actually did was call it a quote, “public health emergency”, which is not a full national emergency.

VALLAS: What’s the actual difference there, what matters?

SLEVIN: A real national emergency declaration would give access to funding, hurricanes are declared national emergencies, you see this all the time in national disasters. Public health emergencies are less frequently used. There’s about $50,000 in the funding stream for public health emergencies, amounts to about .02 cents per opioid patient.

VALLAS: I just want to make sure I heard that correctly. You said $50,000?

SLEVIN: Right, yes.

VALLAS: Right, so with the opioid crisis that we’re facing nationally I know, we’ll throw, I’m putting the pinky in the corner of my mouth, Dr. Evil style, $50,000 to solve this problem is what Trump just said.

SLEVIN: You know, $50,000 would be a lot to one person but not hundreds of thousands of people.

VALLAS: And maybe but maybe not, depending on the nature of the challenges that they’re facing with substances like opioids. So what should Trump actually be doing apart from declaring a real national emergency?

SLEVIN: I think are a couple of things here. A, it’s, I don’t want to not welcome any good news although this is all dependent on them opening up funding streams. This authorizes no new funding. What he could have done is made access to treatment easier for opioid addicts, there’s a lot that he could have done and basically it was a statement that is not going to affect a lot of change. Of course the other side of the coin is at the same time they are trying to slash Medicaid, effectively block grant Medicaid which would end the Medicaid guarantee, slash Medicare, undermine the ACA, all of which help opioid users. And you can’t separate our public health system from the opioid crisis.

VALLAS: So instead of the actual solutions, Trump has issued basically a tweet and $50,000 to date. So good to keep in mind.

SLEVIN: Unfortunately, yes.

VALLAS: Thank you for putting that in context. Thought we had good news but apparently not and I’ll take the pinky out of my mouth now. So last piece and this is one I had asked you to include because it was truly, truly, truly horrifying, even in the context of all the stuff that we talk about in In Case You Missed It most weeks, but tell the story of a young person who, you tell the story before I totally ruin it.

SLEVIN: It’s a horrifying story. A ten year old undocumented immigrant named Rosa Maria Hernandez who is living in Laredo, Texas near the border was detained this week on her way to receive emergency gall bladder surgery. This is a young girl who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, was literally in an ambulance on her way to the hospital and was pulled over and detained by border agents and she is now in deportation proceedings. She was separated from her family, hasn’t been able to see her mother, her mother recently spoke out and said this is like torture. Customs and Border Protection are saying she will be deported. It’s awful and obviously debunks the lie of the administration that they are targeting criminals and gang members because a ten year old girl with Cerebral Palsy on her way to the hospital is anything but that.

VALLAS: So for anyone wondering what Trump is up to when it comes to his policy on how immigrants are treated in this country, the answer is if you commit the crime of wanting to survive a severe health crisis and maybe you need surgery, sorry you’re going to be considered one of his rapists or murderers that he talked about so many times on the campaign trail and you will summarily dismissed and perhaps even sent to your own death which is what could happen in this case. So Jeremy, you didn’t bring any good news this week, did you?

SLEVIN: I apologize.

VALLAS: In sum, is what I’m hearing.

SLEVIN: I always try to find the silver lining but, can’t do it.

VALLAS: And some weeks you even google, “Good news this week” while we’re taping but I’m not even watching you try this week you seem defeated. Well Slevs, thanks for that round up and helping us keep tabs on what else has been going on this week but with that I think we’ll turn it over to what I consider the good news going on right now which requires getting out of Washington and looking to the states who are making tremendous progress as we speak when it comes to removing barriers to opportunity for people with records and that’s we’ll be devoting the rest of this episode to, so don’t go away.

Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.


You’re listening the Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Today 1 in 3 Americans has some type of criminal record. Many have been convicted of only minor offenses and some have only arrests that have never even led to conviction. But because of the rise of technology and the Internet as well as federal and state policy decisions, having even a minor record now creates life long barriers to nearly all of the basic building blocks of economic security; employment, housing, education, job training and more. As a result having even a minor record can be a life sentence to poverty. Following last November’s presidential election, bipartisan efforts in congress to reform our broken criminal justice system unfortunately face a much more uncertain path today. But that hasn’t stopped leaders at the state level from moving forward with their own reforms. And today states are truly leading the way on justice reform and insuring that people with records have a fair chance at moving on with their lives and providing for their families. That’s why this week leaders from communities across the country descended upon Washington for a convening dedicated to unlocking opportunity for people with records in the states. One of the convening’s participants was Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who has set a national example by championing far reaching justice reforms to reverse mass incarceration and ensure that the residents of his state truly live in a second chance society. Here is some of his conversation at that convening with CAP’s Winnie Stachelberg. Let’s take a listen.

WINNIE STACHELBERG: It is my great privilege to introduce Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who has set a national example by championing far reaching justice reforms to reverse mass incarceration and ensure that the residents of his state truly live in a second chance society. Governor Malloy, thank you so much for being here for this important discussion.



STACHELBERG: Please join me up here.

MALLOY: Thank you.

STACHELBERG: Thank you so much for joining me and all of us this morning. It’s a fantastic, timely discussion, really appreciate your being here.

MALLOY: Great to be here.

STACHELBERG: As Governor you obviously have a number of important responsibilities in the state. Jobs, economic development, education and health care just to name a few. But you know you intentionally made criminal justice reform and particularly ensuring second chances a centerpiece of your administration. So as you introduce your record and your commitment to these issues, tell us a little bit about what drew you to the issue of justice reform and how the work is going in the state of Connecticut.

MALLOY: Sure, I’ll try to do that very quickly. I was a prosecutor early in my legal career in New York City, Brooklyn, I was an assistant district attorney, was a wonderful experience, tried 23 felony cases, had convictions in 22 of those cases, was a senior trial attorney in the homicide bureau, learned a lot. One of the things I learned a lot, it stayed with me is that the system is not necessarily fair. That one of the strongest feelings I came away with is that if white communities living in New York City were subjected to the degradations that were heaped upon black and brown communities in New York, we would’ve changed the criminal justice system and our policing method a lot sooner. And I think there is this racial aspect of the criminal justice system that has led us to be very comfortable with 5% of the population in the world having 25% of the prison population in the world. So I’ve made it part of my mission to undo some of that damage.

STACHELBERG: What does look like in Connecticut? You talked a little bit about New York and your experiences there, what was the population like, what are the challenges particular to your state and your advocacy?

MALLOY: You have to remember there was a time in our country, 20 years ago or so that we were opening a new prison every ten days. Somewhere in the country a new prison was opening every ten days. We became absolutely convinced that mass incarceration was the best way to handle crime. When in fact it was probably one of the worst ways to handle crime. And what do I mean by that? I mean that sending young people to jail in particular for minor offenses really is the first step of their getting an advanced degree in criminal behavior, which they’ll have to be involved in for the rest of their lives for the same reasons that you identified from the podium. That you can’t get a job, you can’t get an education, you don’t qualify for housing, you can’t get a student loan and we need to change that.

And so at the high point Connecticut had 20,000 people in jail, that’s 3 and a half million population, 20,000 people in jail, we’re now down to 14,000. I visited a prison in Germany, in the city and state of Berlin and their population is under 6,000; 3 and a half million people, 6,000 quite frankly maybe that’s where we should be but we should certainly be a lot lower than 14,000. And then we’ve done things that will allow that to happen. Our incarceration rate for young people, 16–21 has dropped 62%. When we were in the 50% drop, I asked our commissioner of corrections to take a look at, I wanted to know a very specific question. I wanted to know of our prison population over the age of 25, what percent had been incarcerated before the age of 21? And it was something like 75, 79%. That feeder we have just lessened by 62%. So getting to a number of substantially fewer people being incarcerated and therefore fewer people getting their advanced degrees in criminal behavior is going to happen in Connecticut and is happening now even though violent offenders are doing longer sentences.

STACHELBERG: You talk about prisons, you talk about young people, I want to follow up on both of those. And just to let you all know, I am in the enviable position of being able to ask the questions but with about 15 minutes left in our session about 10 o’clock I’m going to turn it over to you all to ask questions of the governor so be thinking of those. Following up on young adults, I mean it really is one of your signature reforms and one of your signature efforts in Connecticut, focusing on young adults ages 18 to 25. You are one of the governors leading the charge to treat young adults caught up in the juvenile justice system in a very different way. Whether it’s the juvenile justice system or the justice system more generally. But can you just talk specifically about what those changes are that you’re pursuing and again like what led you to the belief that you need to address this specific population.

MALLOY: We did a lot. Again I think that as a practitioner, as a lawyer, as a mayor I observed things happening and it’s clear to me that a lot of young people end up in jail because, not because of the crime they committed but because we’re frustrated with them. They come to court two or three times on very minor things, none of which would justify sending someone to prison and the judge just has it and says OK, well you’re off for six months or a year or a year and a half. That is a life-changing event as you had appropriately described from the podium. It’s bad to have a criminal conviction. It’s even worse to have been in prison. And the numbers of people who won’t hire someone who’s been to prison are substantially higher than the number of people who won’t hire somebody because they have a minor offense on their record.

So what I’m attempting to do is convince people, A, let’s send fewer people to prison. Let’s never send someone to prison because we’re simply frustrated with them. They have mental health needs, let’s address mental health needs. If they have addiction needs and that’s the same thing but a subset, let’s treat that addiction. If someone has to go to prison, how about treating those conditions while they’re in prison. One of the things I would reference in Europe, there are more social workers, physiatrists, psychologists working in many European prisons than there are guards. And imagine how different that would be. Imagine if our job training programs in America’s state prisons actually allowed people to leave the campus and have a job and then return to the campus after their job is over and that’s prepatory to being released in a few months anyway. Imagine the difference that we could make in people’s lives in the preparation for going back to the community.

And that’s where a lot of our efforts are going. Let me just go back to this young people. What I’m calling for is that we treat 18 and 19 and 20 years olds like what they are, not fully mature. Now, we won’t sell them liquor, we won’t sell that cigarettes but we’ll treat them like adults. Does that make any sense? And so I’m not saying that you should be relieved of any obligation, that you shouldn’t suffer some consequence for bad behavior, but lifetime consequence for bad behavior when you’re 18, 19 or 20 year old doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So that’s one of the changes that I’d like to see. Not necessarily appear juvenile extension but something that is more akin erasing a record after 4 years say, for instance for most offenses or a non-conviction of a specific crime and a conviction of being a delinquent. Those sorts of changes would make a lot of sense I think in the United States.

One of the reasons, I’ll go back to another thing I did the first year I was governor. I am not on the bandwagon of legalizing marijuana for tax purposes. That’s not where I’m coming from. But we did decriminalize marijuana, in large part I joined that effort because I understood the disparate impact that a marijuana arrest had on a brown or a black person versus a white person. I’d seen it myself in the court system. But even more important there are 8,000 fewer crimes being processed in Connecticut courts because we decriminalized marijuana. That allows us to pay attention to the really bad stuff or spend more money on turning around people’s actual behaviors as opposed to having that 8,000 arrests turn into let’s say an average of four court appearances before the person’s done and substantially greater likelihood that a black or brown person is going to end using a program or ending up with a conviction. So there are things that we can do to just slow our rush to condemn people for the rest of their lives.

STACHELBERG: Talk a little bit about reentry which is I think often portrayed as something that happens after you’re released from incarceration, yet a great deal of the reforms you’ve enacted as governor involve programming and policy reforms for people still behind bars. Can you tell us why you’ve taken that approach and what the effect of that kind of reentry programming has had on the population?

MALLOY: Sure, in corrections we all talk about what’s the recidivism rate. Now, by the way, crime has dropped in Connecticut in the last four, violent crime has dropped in Connecticut in the last four years more than any other place in the country by a substantial percentage, not just we didn’t eek it by 1%, we blew it out of the park. And in part I think because we are spending more time in getting people ready to go back to the broader society. So we have these prisons within prisons which are substantially designed to get someone ready towards the end of their sentence to go back to the community.

One of those, I love it, is for people who were in the military. You have a person who was really good and was in the military and that was probably the best part of their life, we’re putting them back in the military in a sense. We’re getting them together with their military comrades and we’re talking about their best days as opposed to their worst days. And how you call on those experiences to get you through the rough times you’re going to have. And yes, we make sure you had a license or identification before you leave. And yes we encourage you to get more drug and alcohol treatment if that’s part of your issue. And yes we make sure you’re signed up for whatever insurance coverage and you have the ability to do that, and yes we try to link you with services. So we have a number of these reintegration centers at our prisons, including now our women’s prison to get people ready to go back. Well what’s interesting is the recidivism rate for that group of people is running about 20% versus well over 50% on a broader basis.

So something is working. And by the way, that makes it less likely that we’re going to have to fill that bed with the same person six months or a year from now. So you know making the right investments is very important. I reference how much we’ve dropped incarceration rate in Connecticut, I think it’s about 20% since I’ve been governor just alone and it started a little bit with some of the things were being undertaken. But our corrections budget was $70 million less than the prior year. Even after we redirected some of the savings just on a per person basis into the services that I’m talking about.

STACHELBERG: So more effective, more efficient and lower cost.

MALLOY: And lower crime.

STACHELBERG: And lower crime, right. What’s the reaction of the citizens of Connecticut and are you getting kudos for it, is the legislature in support of it? Is it a recipe that you can share with other governors and other states?

MALLOY: Yeah it’s A, it’s a recipe we can share with anybody. And what I frequently do is if somebody asks we’ll provide what we’ve done each year from ’11 on on criminal justice reform. Because this is a long term rollout to change a system that needs change. And I’ve referenced things like small amount of marijuana being decriminalized or one of the biggest fights we had was like a lot of places Connecticut had this law that if you had, if you possessed drugs in proximity to a school or a public housing project or something like that, within 1,500 feet you had much more severe treatment, all likelihood a felony conviction if that’s what the prosecutor insisted on, if he wouldn’t lower the charges. We did away with that. And low level possessions are no longer how this felony likelihood or almost mandate. That’s important because in a place like New Haven or Bridgeport or Hartford, Connecticut there’s almost nowhere you could be that you weren’t within 1,500 of one of those places. But as opposed to a place like Westport or Darien or New Canaan where most of the locations were outside 1,500; same behaviors, same state, very disparate treatment. That’s been a big step forward quite frankly.

And so each and every year from ’11 on we’ve made substantial change, including by the way, one of the things I think is most substantial and it has to do with our pardons and parole procedure, for non-victims, non-violent offenses we no longer require a hearing for a pardon. There’s information gathering, there’s the application, there’s verification but the pardons and parole can be granted without a full hearing. Why? Because there was a two year wait list for those hearings and we already knew what the outcome of the hearing was going to be. It didn’t make any sense. And so getting someone a pardon earlier in their life is more likely to have a better, longer term result for them. Just for instance, the sooner you start a job, the sooner you get a raise.

STACHELBERG: Right, absolutely. Just talk a little bit about sort of general politics in the environment we’re in now. Obviously we’re living in a dramatically different political climate than we were this time of year ago, as I mentioned [in] my opening comments. There are question marks that surround the idea of justice reform here in Washington but as we’ve been talking about you’re continuing those efforts in Connecticut, passing bail reform and other things earlier this year. So does there exist a coalition of stakeholders in favor of justice reform post election, even as congress’s efforts have stalled? In other words, do you see that there’s opportunity here in Washington or is this going to be a state-by-state effort until there’s another national election?

MALLOY: I think you just answered the question. I don’t see things moving rapidly in Washington on any issue and certainly one not as potentially controversial as thing one. One of the things that I’m urging all governors and mayors and public officials to do is go to a prison and understand what they are. I have visited prisons in Connecticut now 22 times. And I think it’s an important aspect of public service. You need to understand where you’re sending people and how those places are run and how they’re really for the most part, departments of corrections are really not departments of corrections, they’re holding people to be released in worse condition than they came in. And the only part about lowering crime is well they can’t commit a crime while they’re in so that’s what you do.

I think we have to have a very different approach and so I urge people to go visit prisons who are in a position to do it and understand the changes that we can make. And then quite frankly if you’re ever offered the opportunity, which I had, go see a prison in another country. And see how differently, radically differently they are run. And what the implications of running them differently are. I was in Philadelphia last night talking about this very same subject with police chiefs. And not surprisingly police chiefs aren’t visiting prisons a whole lot of times. In fact, the criminal justice system doesn’t speak one piece to another on a regular basis. So we have the people who make the arrest, we have the people who prosecute; we have the people who hold those people for a period of time. And there’s not a whole lot of communication going on and I think one of the great differences in Connecticut is we made that communication take place.

And we broke down those silos and so there’s a fuller understanding. One of the areas that this is playing out is the school specifically high school to prison program we put people on. We suspend people from school, they do worse in school, we don’t address their traumas, we don’t address their illnesses and suspensions lead to criminal behavior lead to incarceration lead to a lifetime of pain. What we have already seen in just a few years of effort, when we concentrate on changing those behaviors in high school we change the actual outcome. The person doesn’t end up suspended, doesn’t end up on the road to that first conviction, second conviction and incarceration. And we’d be far better off spending some of our money doing those things particularly in urban environments that we know are troubled statistically. You could look at high school graduation rates; you could look at other predictors. Let’s concentrate on those things. It’s very expensive.

Let me say this, in Connecticut, it’s at a minimum of a $168 a night to have somebody in jail or prison. That’s a lot of money. That’s why one of our most recent pushes was on bail reform. We did a survey at one point, and we had a large number of people who were incarcerated for bail that could’ve been made for $2,000 or less including people who were in prison for a dollar, so the lack of a dollar was keeping in some cases a person in jail at a cost to the taxpayers of $168 a night. Doing away with mandatory cash bail is an important first step in lowering that population and we know that incarceration for as few as three days is life changing. And why is it? If you’re in a single room occupancy you’ve lost your place to live. If you had a job you’ve lost your job, if you had a support network you’ve been disconnected from it. And so the idea that we have people in prison because they’re poor is outrageous. No one should be in prison because they’re poor. If they’re a true danger then perhaps they have to be held in a different way but not because they’re poor.

VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.


You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Next up in this week’s episode some of the most powerful and important voices at the convening on unlocking opportunity for people with records this week were people with records themselves. As Glenn Martin founder of JustLeadership USA often puts it, “the people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution.” I want to play a short clip of Glenn discussing the role of language in this work and particularly the importance of using language that humanizes people who are too often demonized and especially in the media. Let’s take a listen.

CHRISTINE OWENS: If you could talk a little bit about how people with records are generally portrayed by the media and the impact that has and also if you think race and racism has an effect in terms of how different people are portrayed.

GLENN MARTIN: Sure, thanks for that softball.


OWENS: Hard one next.

MARTIN: Well let me start by giving the media some credit. I’ve been doing this work for 16 years now and it’s clear to me that there’s been an evolution in journalism, mostly brought about by the momentum created by many of the people in this room where we’ve gone from mostly reporting on crime to reporting on criminal justice reform. And that is unique and that is different and that gives me hope that we’re moving away from just sensationalism. Having said that, I came into this work as folks know pretty serendipitously coming home from prison, looking for a job, visiting about 50 different employers within 30 days and ultimately landing at the front desk answering the phones at the public interest law firm the Public Action Center. So I’m pointing to my colleague Roberta here in the front row. And so it means that when I think about this work I think about it through the lens of my experience of serving 6 years in prison and what struck me coming into this field if I can hold us as a field accountable before I point directly to the media is when I was in prison, prison culture is that you don’t talk about what brought you there. And so you serve time and it’s sort of taboo to ask someone well why are you here? And so I remember having people help teach me how to read and how to write and how to be a better writer. And apply for college and ultimately go to college while I was in prison.

And I couldn’t imagine calling how and talking to my mother about a letter I had written her and saying yeah, this murderer helped me to write that letter. And yet when you read media stories, even if the story is really good, the title often tells the story way before the reader gets involved. And I understand that journalists are often not the only ones responsible for this. I’ve talked to journalists that are pretty thoughtful about this, particularly recently. I can tell you how many stories I’ve done about JustLeadership USA, about my own story, about the story of some of our leaders like Bill and others who are in this space today and they do a great story and then you see the title of the story and you see, you know I think the most recent one that just struck me was around Reginald Betts, “Felon who graduated from Yale allowed to become a lawyer.” So not only are we using nouns to dehumanize folks and to other them, but we’re literally using verbs in ways that reinforce the existing narrative about people who are involved in our criminal justice system as if he had not earned the opportunity. I mean I could have easily made that title, “Man earns law license” and told a very, a much stronger story.

And so having said that I think it is our responsibility as a field to do a better job. Like I have been in so many rooms, particularly early on in my career but still now, in fact this room, where we’re not doing the best job we can of humanizing the very folks that we’re talking about and who other than us? This field has become extremely professionalized, people are resourced to do the work, we are the front line of the work to end mass incarceration in this country. The story ultimately that’s going to be written in history is going to be about us and so we need to lead the way. And for me, leading the way means calling out institutions. I remember being at The New York Times a few weeks ago meeting with about six journalists. And about 45 minutes into a 1 hour conversation they said, “Oh and you have some critique of us.” And so I was like oh, so you read my twitter account this morning. [LAUGHTER]

And it’s because every single story I pump out I actually change the language. I mean I use the right brackets to show that it’s my amendment of the title but I do it very deliberately. And you know what if I can change the title of an article in 140 characters then the media can get it right ultimately also but only if we hold not just the jouranlists accountable but also their editors.

VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.


You’re listening the Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Finally in sharing highlights and some of the most powerful moments from the unlocking opportunity convening a strange bedfellows pairing of bipartisan state lawmakers are about to make Pennsylvania a national model in second chance policy by passing legislation to enable people with records to earn a clean slate after they’ve remained crime free for a set period of time. Next up and rounding out the episode, my conversation with Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, a rising star in the House of Representatives who just announced she’ll be bringing clean slate from the Pennsylvania legislature to the halls of congress. Let’s take a listen.

Before we get to the $64 million question which I think is corrected from inflation from $64,000. My economist Rachel West is here somewhere and can correct me on that later. Before we get to that I’d love to hear from you about your background and why you’ve decided to take on these issues of criminal justice reform and particularly reentry.

REPRESENTATIVE LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER: Well first of all, thank you Rebecca. She has like the most incredible energy, she met me, doesn’t she? It’s like incredible, it’s infectious. And I was in the green room waiting to come out and she came in and she said that this crowd is fired up so I don’t know, are y’all fired up in here? [APPLAUSE]

VALLAS: Sounds like a yes.

ROCHESTER: Well I’ll tell you why I’m fired up. First of all I never ran for office in my life and in 2014 the, I had a situation happen where the love of my life, my husband ruptured his Achilles’ tendon on a business trip and blood clots went to his heart and lungs and he passed away. And it changed everything for me. I was, I’m typically a very happy, upbeat, joyful person, every job I’ve ever had I brought joy to it. In Delaware I’ve been able to serve everything from summer youth employment coordinator to working in the office of then Congressman Tom Carper as an intern and a case worker working on Social Security Disability and housing and different issues. Every job, Secretary of Labor I always brought joy to it. But when Charles passed away it changed everything for me and it made me question why am I here? Why am I still here? What’s my purpose? And I remember seeing so many other people who looked either sad or mad. Like that whole election year, I don’t care who people were lined up with, it was just kind of a feeling of loss. And whether they lost their job or their home during the housing crisis or a child to gun violence it was just a lot of, it just felt heavy and I felt like the people who were running, everything felt heavy to me. I was like I’m already sad and y’all are bringing me down I mean it was depressed.

And I decided that I was blessed you know, everything, I’m ok. But a lot of people were not. And I decided to run even though I had never run, I had never been in a debate in my life. And I was debating ivy league lawyers, people were comment on blogs that I looked like a deer in the headlights because I was a deer in the headlights, I was scared to death. I had never raised money like that. But there was something compelling me to do it. And the more stories I heard from people in my state the more compelled I felt. And I remember one day at a campaign thing in the park a guy was sitting on a bench and he was talking about the fact that he had gotten out of prison and no matter how hard he tried he could not find a job. And it reminded me of my own family and my own history, my uncles or my cousins in Philadelphia who went in and out of the prison system. And even as a mom I remember when my son turned 18 and getting a call around midnight that he had been stopped by a police officer and jumping out my bed in my pajamas with my heart just beating so fast and then watching my daughter’s friends get in trouble for things like they drove the speed limit too fast out of a convenience store and next thing you know they’re having to go to court and they’re having to and this whole concept of clean slate to me really rang true because people deserve to live a full, rich, thriving life. And your one or two activities that you face with the law should not stop you from supporting yourself or your family.

And as the representative mentioned sometimes it is young people but even in The Atlantic magazine I saw an article about a woman who was 57 years old, who was a grandmother and had been, this charge had been following her for 38 years and stopping her from getting a job. And so for me coming into congress is an opportunity to take all of those experiences, all those life lessons and use them. And so when I heard about what Pennsylvania had done, not to mention meeting with you and your wonderful team, it was a no-brainer for me that this is an issue that does cut across parties. And so announcing here I guess, we can announce here that I will be introducing on the federal level the clean slate legislation. [APPLAUSE] Hot off the press. And so again the background is really served as the CEO of the Urban League in Delaware, Secretary of Labor, head of state personnel as well and in that job was hiring, firing, training of employees and one of the things that I know is that in the 1990s about half of the companies would check your background for jobs. Now it’s like 90%, it might even be more today. So this touches people’s ability to buy a home, to rent an apartment, to just to live. And so for me to be able to be in a position to do something about it I feel honored and blessed so that’s why I’m here.

VALLAS: Well thank you and I have to say, even knowing what you were about to announce I’m getting chills just thinking about it. So another round of applause for Congresswoman Rochester. [APPLAUSE] So we’ve heard a lot today about what the potential for really being able to earn a second chance in the words of Bill Cobb, not be given but earn a second chance means. I’d love to hear from you what your plans are and how a clean slate bill at the federal level, if signed into law, could remove barriers not just for people with records but for their children and for their families which as you mentioned through your own personal story is a big part of how you came to this work?

ROCHESTER: You know that story of the 57 year old grandmother is a perfect example of someone. We all know, I mean like this is like the choir so I’m preaching to it but we all know the connection between prison and our children and the impact that that has on them to have a parent that’s going through a criminal justice system. Some of you may be watching this show on the OWN network called “Released”. If you haven’t watched it I would recommend it because it chronicles 6 individuals who are transitioning out of prison and just some of the challenges that they face on a day to day level. Things that we just take for granted like having, going to the airport and not having an ID. The only ID that this person had was their prison ID and then having to stop everything and everybody looking at him while they’re trying to negotiate can he use his prison ID to get on a plane. You know, a person who wanted to get a job with a union was told in prison, soon as you get out, you go meet this person and you’re set. But he got there and found out no, you need to pay $500, you need to do this for a week, you need to come back with Social Security card and with a license and so even just some of those barriers that one of the great things for me is I’ve been asked to co-chair a task force in the Democratic caucus on access to jobs and one of the things that we’re looking at are barriers to people working. This is a huge barrier, you know.

I mean fortunately, there are states that have banned the box and are doing different pieces. But this one, we’re saying it shouldn’t be hard for you to clean your record when you’ve served your time, some time has gone by, it’s a non-violent offense and basically it’s saying if we’ve got the technology then maybe you don’t have to go back to court and so not only is it a money thing for the individual but it also is for government. It’s a savings for government as well. So Pennsylvania is fortunately because it’s a state that actually has a good system in terms of technology and can make those automatic changes and so we’re working on the legislation to make sure that we can do it on the federal level as well. But I think again, anything that gets rid of the barriers for people to live, to go to school, to have a job, to rent or own a home, that’s the goal of this legislation is to clean the slate so that you can live your life.

VALLAS: Now I promise the $64 million question and I would be remiss if I didn’t take it here because I think everyone in this room is wondering not just how can they take this work to their states and can continue to move through the successful models that they’ve been championing in their states but what’s going on in congress. Now I don’t want to put all of that on you.

ROCHESTER: You can put it on, put it on.

VALLAS: Well if you’re asking. But I think everyone is wondering, I think it was said earlier by Winnie Stachelberg from CAP that there’s an uncertain path when it comes to the future of criminal justice reform in Washington. What are the chances, do you believe if you looked into your crystal ball or magic 8 ball, I don’t know which one you have with you, for seeing something actually move through congress and do you believe that there’s a realistic chance of something like clean slate being part of that?

ROCHESTER: You know it was interesting because the representative was talking about the fact that, Sheryl was saying sometimes when things are non-controversial they don’t even make the news. And so I didn’t come from a background as a legislator. I come from a background in the executive side who had to work with the legislative side. But the successes that I had with the legislative side were about a few things. One was building relationships and you know knowing the stuff, knowing the facts. And so for me, I’ll give you just an example of something that we did in Delaware. It just never made the news. And it was we need to collect abortion data. We were one of states that didn’t do it and therefore couldn’t get teen pregnancy federal dollars and I got the most pro-choice, pro-life people to co-sponsor the bill, went to the archdiocese and Planned Parenthood and said the reason this bill constantly fails is because people are always trying to amend it will things that they want. How about we have a clean bill? Nothing, no amendments, you need the data and you need the data. They were like you’re right we do both need the data. We passed that bill unanimously without anybody even knowing in the newspaper because it made sense. And so for me I don’t, I’ve had five careers already I’m not doing this for a career. I just want to see something get done.

And I want you to know that when the freshman class came in, both Democrats and Republicans, we were in a room like this and we asked all the staff to leave the room because we wanted to get to know each other as people without any, you know. And we started asking who in this room has a port? Who in this room has served in the military, raise your hand. Part of it was for us to get to see, do we have any common ground amongst ourselves? And then in February one of my Republican colleagues drafted a pledge of civility. So in February, Valentine’s Day I stood on the floor of the house and gave a speech about civility and about the fact that we’re not going to agree on everything.

But we can at least agree to respect each other and to at least try to find common ground and work on issues so last week I introduced my first, biggest bill which was the SOAR Act for small businesses and it was with my Republican colleague from Pennsylvnia Brian Fitzpatrick. Part of it to me is about building those relationships. So on this one I already have in mind who is a person who’s got criminal justice background, that will probably seem way to the others extreme of me, but can also provide that credibility and help me to make sure to make sure those relationships are established. Again, I think this is common sense, I think it’s one of those things that might just happen under the radar so we’ll need all of your help under the radar to make sure that we’re talking to the right people. But I don’t call myself an optimist. I am a pragmatist. I am a positive pragmatist. And so I believe that the chances are very great that we can get this done and plus it doesn’t cost money! That’s like the big thing. That seems to be stopping a lot of stuff. The fact that it could possibly save money and help the economy and help people’s lives I think it’s a win-win-win. I also wanted to leave you with a message of encouragement. That no matter what you see swirling around you, stay focused on what, keep our eyes on the prize. I was a dancer as a kid and we do pirouettes. And people would say how can you spin and not fall? It’s because you would focus on one spot, even though everything is spinning around you, stay focused. Stay focused and don’t give up hope. I carried with me on the day that I was sworn in, my sister had done research on my family and I wanted to wear something special, like dress like Shirley Chisholm but it really ugly, hideous 1970s suit. I couldn’t do it. It was beautiful at the time I’m sure. [LAUGHTER] So she found a card in the vital statistics that allowed my great-great-great grandfather the right to vote as a slave from Reconstruction era. And I said can you turn it into a scarf so on the day that I was sworn in as Delaware’s first woman and first person of color to go to congress I carried this scarf with my grandfather’s X. He couldn’t sign his name, only an X. So don’t forget where we come from. Don’t forget what we’ve been through. We’re gonna make it through all of this swirl. So don’t let the swirl fool you.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.