Rejoining society once you have a felony conviction on your record can be a smothering burden. From diminished job opportunities to housing problems and other legal entanglements, it can be a disheartening struggle, one that can lead to disenfranchisement and apathy.
With one group of ex-felons taking the lead, though, that's changing locally.
In September, fresh off this summer's victory in getting the city of Cincinnati to adopt a fair hiring policy — where ex-felons were once denied city jobs, City Council adopted the policy that opened jobs to former offenders — the groups involved with the win started to plan the next use of their newly won political capital. Representatives from the HELP Program, a local ministry of St. Francis Seraph that works with ex-offenders, and The AMOS Project gathered to brainstorm.
"The context of the meeting was, 'Where do we go from here?'" says Paul Graham, executive director of the AMOS Project. "(Ex-felons) still face a number of barriers, but coming off the fair hiring win, they're starting to feel hope that they have the ability to make the world around them better for themselves, their families and their neighbors."
The result has been an all-out blitz to show Election Day muscle of what has been a largely disenfranchised segment of the population. Spearheaded by members of the HELP Program, the group has been canvassing the city, registering 300 new voters to date and getting pledges from another 700 to vote on Election Day. They've followed that up with nightly telephone banks to reach out to other voters.
The AMOS Project is a Tristate coalition of 30 churches committed to promoting social justice and reducing poverty. The group takes its name from a Bible verse:
"... Let justice roll down like waters.” (Amos 5:24)
Terry "T.J." Jones, an Over-the-Rhine resident, is one of the Project HELP clients who has been leading the effort, going out nearly every day to reach out to prospective voters.
"There are a lot of people interested in what we're doing," Jones says. "Some of them, when we start by telling them that we're ex-felons, don't want to get involved at first. But when we tell them what we're doing, what we're all about, they come around. They see that we're just trying to make a change in the community. To make our community better."
At times, it's been a particularly uphill battle among other ex-felons, Graham says.
"Unfortunately, the reception hasn't been as good as we'd hoped,” he adds. “Way too many felons are convinced that they don't have the right to vote or the ability to vote. We've had to spend a lot of time educating them that it is their right.”
That misconception is probably fostered by the fact that felons currently serving prison time cannot vote. And while in Ohio they regain their rights immediately upon their release from prison, the state is fairly liberal when it comes to ex-felons voting.
In two states — Kentucky and Virginia — felons lose their vote permanently. In eight other states, they can regain their voting rights only after completing cumbersome legal processes, while another 20 require them to complete probation and other requirements before regaining their vote.
Across the United States, more than 5 million people have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions, according to estimates by the American Civil Liberties Union, including an estimated 13 percent of American black male population.
On Sept. 28, the first day of early voting in Ohio, the team went to the polls, voted and got their "I Just Voted" stickers. They've been wearing them since, as proof to other ex-offenders that they, too, can vote, Graham says.
As a non-partisan, 501(c) organization, he adds, the group isn't telling people how to vote, just to get to the polls.
“It isn't a Republican or Democrat thing," Graham explains. "The goal is that on Nov. 3, the day after the election, we can go to our city and state leaders and say this is how many people we moved to the polls. It's about carving out a constituency, building a power base that brings recognition and respect to the work the guys are doing and the issues they're concerned about."
As a force in public policy, it's unlikely they'll have to wait that long.
As part of next week's Faith and Values Summit, "Our Faith, Our Values, Our Vote" — a public forum sponsored by The AMOS Project, conservative-leaning pureHOPE (formerly the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families), Cincinnati Faith & Justice and other groups — they'll have the ear of some some of the top candidates for state and federal offices.
After extending invitations to candidates in all the major races, the forum is expected to bring Gov. Ted Strickland, Attorney General Rich Cordray and U.S. Rep. Steve Dreihaus to the Museum Center on Oct. 18. State Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Dist. 8), Ohio Representatives Denise Dreihaus (D-Dist. 31) and Connie Pillich (D-Dist. 28) also are expected to attend.
Billed as a chance to re-focus dialogue on core values important to the community, topics will include jobs and opportunities for ex-felons, foreclosure prevention and human trafficking. The event is expected to draw about 700 people.
Jones is nervously awaiting his chance to speak to Strickland directly about issues facing ex-felons. But he's not just sitting around until then.
"We're making a difference," Jones says. "If we can do one thing that makes a difference for 1,000 people, if we can help change our community for the better, we'll do it. Even if we make just a small difference, it's worth it. It's something to be proud of."
Graham, who has been working with the voting drive leaders since the beginning, sees their effort as an inspiration.
"It's reaffirming that people can grow as leaders when they're given the opportunity to do so," he adds. "People just need honest opportunities to step up."