Scarlet Letter Legalization (Cannabis and the Shameful Realities of Unequal Justice)
CANNABIS CULTURE – Matt Brown* and Natalie DePriest were both busted for their pot stash while away from home in 2011, but their stories take incredibly divergent paths from there.
Brown laid low at a friend’s house for a while, got a good attorney, and was never even arrested for the 175 plants he had growing in his home.
He was sentenced to two years on probation. After one year with no limitations on movement—or even a single drug test—he was let off early for good behavior. “My record was sealed. [ … ] I went back to school right away, then got a job in IT.” The whole incident formed a short blip in his life that was essentially over when it was over. He manages tech support for his company now, and “No one has ever said anything,” about his record when trying to find employment.
For DePriest, on the other hand, the ordeal was not so smooth. “It feels like I went to sleep at 33 and woke up at 41,” she says of the time she spent fighting her case and serving time. “This chunk of my life is just gone, and I’m back at square one financially and professionally at the age of 42.”
Ms.DePriest spent two years fighting a new prosecutor, Joseph Mahurin, who was trying to make a name for himself and an example out of DePriest and her brother. The police had found 12 plants, a pound of weed, and some weapons at their shared residence. Despite the fact that Mr. DePriest was a gunsmith, the prosecution built the narrative that he and his sister were big time drug dealers preparing to go to war with law enforcement.
She had gone bankrupt paying for an attorney for herself and her brother. “We were broken, tired, and out of money. We pleaded guilty with an open plea, and we both received maximum sentences.”
And that was it. DePriest was handed two concurrent 15-year sentences. Her brother was handed the same, plus an additional seven years for an unfinished AR-15 that was ¼ inch too short to be legal.
Fortunately, they were able to get their sentences reduced through appeals. “Our case was reversed unanimously in both the court of appeals and state supreme court. We made a deal at the end to stop the madness from moving forward. I served 4 years, my brother served 5.”
Gaining a Record, Losing a Livelihood
DePriest’s hardship did not end, however, when she left prison. Like many others whose lives have been destroyed because of a cannabis charge, her reputation was tarnished. Her record has been a barrier to moving on with life, while the legal mariuana industry rakes in billions of dollars.
“I have not been able to find employment in my field as a staff writer. Once they find out I am a felon, all offers are rescinded.” DePriest has managed to create a career for herself as a freelancer, using her Bachelor’s in Journalism to build her own source of income. She now writes for a website dedicated to being a resource to those who love someone who has been incarcerated, PrisonInsight.com.
“I am the exception, though. The recidivism rate is so high because once people get caught in the criminal justice system, it’s nearly impossible to get out of it. Once people become felons they can’t get jobs or housing, and the only way they believe they can support themselves is through crime.”
Ron Stefanski started PrisonInsight.com, as well as JobsForFelonsHub.com, which is a website that helps people with felonies find resources to begin their lives again when they get out of prison. The process is full of ups and downs, and it may seem easier to just give up for many. “They go through the interview process, and the hiring manager says, ‘yeah you look good, we’ll pass it over to HR,’ then HR turns them down.”
Even after finding employment, many who have a felony on their records live in constant fear of losing their jobs. “Somebody will come to a company. The company doesn’t run a background check. The company grows, the employee gets promoted. Then the company does a background check, and they let the employee go.”
Finding a Way Forward
Liesl Bernard, founder of Cannabiz Team, started the company’s Aim Higher Project, teaming up with the Last Prisoner Project to “elevate what we do through a social equity lens.” The company is in the process of finalizing a training program that will, “help prisoners with their resume, [ … ] work with them on how to interview [ … ] how to dress,” and it has also secured relationships with businesses in the cannabis industry willing to give people with a record a chance.
Cannabiz Team is co-sponsoring a webinar on November 17th, to address how cannabis companies can create opportunities for people coming out of the prison system. “I believe there is definitely a level of compassion and empathy, especially in the cannabis industry [ … for people with marijuana charges on their record].”
While some employers use language like, “second chance,” when referencing why they hired someone with a record, some hiring managers see things differently. Joan Ofarck*, who at one time supervised hiring for a customer service call center with 1,300 employees, said that her focus was never on a potential new-hire’s record.
She always instructed her managers to look at two things: “Do they have the right skills to do the job? Based on your questions and answers, do you think they will be successful?” Ofarck did screen for violent offenses and those of a sexual nature; but beyond that, she understood that “crazy s—t just happens, and you just happen to be the one that got caught.”
She noted that there are so many reasons that people end up with convictions, and they often have nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime. “Aggressive prosecutors. Bad defenders. Sometimes you’re just too poor to afford a decent attorney.”
Which leaves us where we are today. Despite the fact that US states have been decriminalizing marijuana for decades—and corporations are now making billions of dollars on legal weed—40,000 people are currently serving time because of nonviolent cannabis offenses, while others merely experience a bump in the road and have their records sealed. The system is vastly different depending on your location, your financial status, your gender and your race.
Reforming the System Must be Universal
Matt Brown is fortunate to be able to put his past behind him and move on with his life. He freely takes advantage of his right to grow a few plants in his new home state of Colorado, and he is moving past the trauma of what happened.
People like Natalie DePriest and her brother, however, will likely continue to struggle to find employment at larger companies, or to do anything that requires a background check. The world will still look at them as criminals who need reformation.
DePriest is hopeful that she can use her story to help others, and she is currently working on a script detailing her experiences that she plans to turn into a TV pilot someday. But the cost of her senseless hardship is immeasurable. “I always say that the most dangerous thing about cannabis is getting caught with it.”
While organizations like The Last Prisoner Project work with companies like Cannabiz Team, and websites like JobsForFelonsHub.com and PrisonInsight.com help people coming out the system get their lives back, true change “boils down to the federal level,” according to Ron Stefanski. Reform needs to be universal.
Stefanski’s advice to people who are looking for employment as they come out of prison is this: “The biggest thing, without a doubt, is to be persistent and not give up. It’s going to be difficult. It’s an uphill battle. But if they [felons]are willing to put in the work, they will find success.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.