Any time Samantha Rogers fills out an application—for a job, housing, education or assistance—she freezes. These forms all have the dreaded box and the accompanying question: Have you committed a felony? Rogers knows that telling the truth will almost certainly make rejection inevitable.
“It makes me feel like they’re not going to allow me to get past my history, because they’re going to keep reminding me that I’m a criminal or a felon,” Rogers says. “That was my past—it’s not who I am today.”
Growing up in a middle-class family in San Jose, Rogers was sexually abused at the age of four—a secret she didn’t tell anyone until a few years ago—leading her on a downward spiral in her teen years, which eventually resulted in an addiction to crack cocaine. Instead of finding treatment she was arrested for drug possession several times in her 20s before landing in Central California Women’s Facility. She spent the next 17 years in and out of prison.
After being released in 2010, Rogers enrolled in recovery and support groups with the California Coalition of Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) and worked to turn her life around. Today the 47-year-old mother of four, warm and easy with a laugh, is a part-time program assistant for the CCWP in San Francisco, where she leads the re-entry program to get women like herself back on their feet after getting out of prison.
This position, Rogers says, allows her to “give back and support what’s right,” a phrase she uses repeatedly. She’s now following the footsteps of her mother, who spent her career working with victims of domestic violence.
Despite her turnaround, Rogers says, she continues to face extraordinary challenges because of the “felon” label hanging over her head. Even though she committed a nonviolent offense—drug possession—the felony prevents Rogers from accessing food stamps. Finding housing or additional part-time work is nearly impossible. Starting last month, “ban the box” legislation in California went into effect, preventing public sector employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record. Private employers, however, still have free reign to pry into past records.
“I don’t even want to apply because everybody is going to know my background and they’re not going to see me as I am today,” Rogers says. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to say they want to reform people, but not allow them to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.”
A new ballot initiative seeks to address the unduly harsh punishments Rogers and tens of thousands of Californians face—both in and after prison—for nonviolent offenses. The proposal, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Jose Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, would change certain low-level drug and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors as a way to reduce prison overcrowding. The shift would also redirect billions of dollars from the prison system to education, drug and mental health treatment and victims’ restitution.
After collecting more than 800,000 signatures, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act is set to appear on the statewide ballot this November.
Lansdowne, who retired in February after heading police departments in San Jose, Richmond and most recently San Diego, says the impetus for the ballot initiative came from his 49 years in law enforcement. “People who get a felony conviction have difficulty rebuilding their lives—they can’t vote, they can’t get jobs,” he says. “This bill gives us the chance to say, ‘Yes, you made a mistake, but you have the opportunity to rebuild your life.’ It’s the first time we’ve had prison reform that dedicates the money to addiction recovery, mental health and children.” According to Lansdowne, an estimated $60,000 is spent on each inmate per year, while resources for addiction and mental health services continually suffer. “There’s nowhere they can go to get it,” he says. “It’s sad to say, but probably the largest provider of mental health services today in this country is our jails.”
Instead of spending huge amounts of money locking people up, Lansdowne hopes to move those dollars to programs that would help people avoid incarceration in the first place.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this issue,” Lansdowne says. “The current system is putting people in prison for minor offenses—possession, petty theft—for long periods of time. You can’t warehouse people and expect some success at rebuilding lives or preventing crime.”
Rogers agrees, saying it “would be fabulous” if her felonies could be adjusted to misdemeanors, and if more state resources had been devoted to rehabilitation instead of enforcing the War on Drugs.
“I believe I would have been able to become a better mother and woman, and would have been more productive in society if I had had that kind of support,” she says. “I think if they had tried to address the core of my problems, I probably wouldn’t be just getting my life started right now.”
James Gray, a former Superior Court judge in California, says the ballot initiative is a step in the right direction—and yet another sign that the failed War on Drugs is coming to an end. Like Lansdowne, Gray first became critical of current drug policy while on the job. “It hit me when I was first a judge, starting in late 1983, and we were just turning low-level drug offenders through the system for no good purpose, and in many cases ruining their lives,” he says.
“This is the biggest failed policy in the history of the United States of America, second only to slavery,” adds Gray, who is also the author of the book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. “Tell me one area of interest, and I’ll tell you how it’s made worse because of our policy of prohibition—whether education, health care, the environment, you name it.”
California had 13 state prisons throughout most of its history, according to Gray, before Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971. The state now has 34 prisons. California has 117,500 inmates—a growth of 750 percent since Nixon’s presidency and more than those incarcerated in France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Singapore combined. More than a quarter of drug offenders here end up back in prison within a year of their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and more than half after five years.
“Probably 40 percent of them are there for nonviolent drug offenses,” Gray says. “You could release many of them outright or release others to drug treatment, and it wouldn’t have any effect on our safety, whatsoever.”
Reforming the nation’s ill-conceived drug laws is not a Left or Right issue, says Gray, who won the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nomination in 2012. From a conservative standpoint, he points to the fiscal damage of the policies and excessive cost of housing inmates. For liberals, he points to the human cost of “putting fathers and mothers in jail and prison and separating families.”
As a result, the bill “absolutely” has bipartisan appeal, according to Lansdowne.
“I think both sides understand that we have to do something about these prisons,” he says. “Warehousing people hasn’t worked. We need more services and this is the responsible way to manage it without putting people at risk.”
Having hit rock bottom and working her way out of the system to help others, Rogers says the bill’s passage will require voters to change the way they view possession crimes.
“The majority of these people are addicts,” she says. “We need support. Locking us up prevents us from doing it, but it doesn’t help us get our lives in order so that when we get out we know how to rehabilitate ourselves and help our families.”