Monday, January 6, 2014

Who is a felon?

So what do you think of when you think of a convicted felon?

Do you picture the guys on Prison Break or Sons of Anarchy? Dirty, scruffy, tough people, running around committing crimes?

How about Tim Allen? Martha Stewart? The lady next door? The cashier at the grocery store?

Why is it that we automatically assume that a felon must look rough, dirty and unkempt? Or that if someone is clean and well put together that they aren’t? Is that better or worse than seeing a rough looking guy and assuming he’s a felon simply from his appearance? Because not everyone with a full beard and a leather jacket is a criminal. And not everyone in professional business attire isn’t.
I remember a bunch of police coming to our school in 5th grade. They had a giant posterboard with pictures of all types of various drugs. I remember them talking about drugs being bad for you and the effects they can have on your body…including death.
What I don’t remember is them talking about what happens as far as punishment if you get caught with drugs. The long term effects of making one idiotic decision.

As I sat in my handcuffs, crying in the back of the squad car while we rode to the jail, I realized I was in big trouble but still didn’t come close to understanding the enormity with which this would affect the rest of my life.  I had family members that had gotten arrested before, but none had ever stayed in jail longer than a night or two to my knowledge. 
I got through booking to learn that my bail had been set at $50,000. Surprisingly, there were books available and I was able to investigate my charges and learn the terrifying truth. It carries a 3 year minimum mandatory sentence. It took me a good three weeks to accept that I had no idea how long it would be before I could rejoin the outside world.

 At some point I had an arraignment with a judge via a television screen, and asked to be released on my own recognizance since I hadn’t been in trouble before. My request was denied. I had to sit and watch 2 hours of other inmates’ hearings, including a sexual offender who WAS released on his own recognizance, but that is an entirely separate rant for another day.
Back to my story. I ended up sitting in jail for 2 ½ months before they lowered my bail and I could afford to get out. The case was continued for about a year, and then I was sentenced to a year and had to go in to finish the rest of my sentence (I got credit for the original 2 ½ months) And I will say that I am lucky and eternally grateful that the judge showed mercy in giving me just one year instead of three.

When I was a kid, my mother often grounded me for a month, but I had always found a way to renegotiate her terms and I’d be ungrounded by the end of a week. Except for the time I told her that would happen, then she actually stuck to it for two weeks.
My point is that I had ZERO CONCEPT of consequences at all, never mind of this level. I had no clue that making a couple of phone calls and introducing two people to each other would impact me for decades to come.  To me, this message should get out there to our children so that even if they walk that same path, they at least can’t say they didn’t know.

I would love to share my message with kids facing peer pressure to try drugs and drinking like a majority of their friends (I saw some random statistic that now 20% of kids over age 12 drink alcohol regularly, and that 25% of that figure binge  drink – now that’s scary) I have a 14 year old as well as my 5 year old and while I can talk to the two of them about that, what about the kids like I was, whose parents either don’t care to talk to them about it or assume they don’t need to?

But…the nature of my charge would never let me volunteer or speak to a group of kids in that capacity. Despite the fact that it was 11 years ago and I have not gotten in trouble since (aside from an occasional speeding ticket, but even that has been awhile) How very sad that they will not be able to learn from my mistakes and experiences.  Because to me, if even just ONE of them listened and learned something and altered their course, it would be worth the effort.

Now I’d like to talk about the laundry list of things that constitute a felony. Because honestly? In the family I grew up in, a lot of the things on this list were perfectly normal Saturday afternoon activities. I had no idea I grew up surrounded by criminals and addicts until I went to jail and consequently, therapy.

The concept that a perfectly ordinary individual can become a convicted felon never occurred to me. Maybe it never occurred to you either, unless you have a friend or family member like me. Let’s take a look at what Florida thinks, shall we?

Besides the obvious stuff, like murder, child porn, or robbing a bank, some common felony charges in Florida include: DUI, writing a bad check(fraud), getting in a fight (assault and battery), bigamy (I must admit, I didn’t expect that one), burglary(yes, it’s a felony, whether you are stealing from a house or a car),  and a myriad of charges involving various drugs.

Now, I’m not trying to say any of these things are ok, or that someone who does them shouldn’t get in trouble or have to face their punishment. I’m just trying to say that to a bunch of young adults that are completely uneducated (not all but definitely a percentage) on this topic, these could seem like ordinary things to do. And even if not, they are things it could be very easy to be led into getting involved in.

But not impossible to learn from.

And that is why it isn’t fair to continue to punish someone after they have completed all of the terms of their sentence. When I got the letter seven years ago telling me I was done with probation, it meant that I had completely repaid my debt to society. I am not forbidden by law to be around children or required to register with law enforcement or anything like that, I am just forbidden to be around children by the Seminole County School Board.

It seems so obvious to ME, at least, that someone who got in trouble once eleven years ago (Ooh! It’s after the New Year, I can start saying 12 years now! YAY!), and who hasn’t been in trouble since, has likely found their way to the straight and narrow path.  If I had been arrested every year since for similar things, I could totally see denying my application to volunteer. You know, this year I am eligible to ask for clemency (a pardon). Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll get it, apparently those standards got tougher in 2011, but my point is that it has been a sufficient length of time that I am allowed to begin the process. If it’s been long enough for that, surely it’s been long enough that I can help out around the school.

I think for me, the funniest part (though I wasn’t laughing) is that my first request for appeal was denied by the exact same person who said no to it the first time. How is that an appeal, exactly? Especially since when I spoke to the woman on the phone and she told me it was up to the state, not the county, and there was nothing they could do to approve my application. So when I asked her who it was I should contact about this at the state level, she quickly and snappily told me “NO ONE. There is NO ONE that you can talk to about an appeal, this is the policy.”

Since then I have learned this is NOT the state policy, and that the state leaves it up to each county to decide how they will handle volunteers. So telling me it was not up to the county itself was either a mistake or a lie. Both of which would need correction.

I believe that was the moment that I decided to follow through on this to the best of my ability, to prevent someone else being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. I can take it and shrug it off, because I’m an exceptionally tough cookie. But not everyone can do that. For some people, that could have been the catalyst to push them back into drinking/drugging/self-destructing.
Shame on anyone who would kick someone who is already down like that! (That’s right, I won’t name names since it is public record and anyone can go see who it is online, but yeah SHAME ON YOU. Just because you are not a felon, doesn’t make you a better person, which I think is obvious based on your treatment of others). It is so hard to stay positive and focused in the face of hostility and judgment such as that, and so easy to give up like they intend for you to and say “I’ll never fit in, I’m just a criminal anyway, I may as well continue what I was doing before, because there is no room for the likes of me on the path of the righteous and good. They’re right, I should just go away.”

I have many MANY motivations to keep on fighting the good fight (in SO many areas of my life, which will come out over time as I continue this blog) and that is how I pick myself up, dust myself off and try again.  And if I can somehow pick myself up AND help others in the process, well, then that is another positive I can achieve even though I am a felon…..and I take those positives when I can, since we felons get so few of those.  ;)

That’s enough rambling for today. I have had many of you ask me to let you know when I am ready to present to the school board, so that you may join my cheering section – I will definitely make sure I announce it.   For now, I shall continue my research of county, state, and federal school volunteer rules and start watching prior school board meetings online so I can get a feel for how things go so I am more comfortable when it is time for my presentation. I like to do things properly and thoroughly, and those things take a little bit of time.

On that note, I will leave you with some parting motivational words from my five year old. With inspiration like this, how could I possibly give up? :)


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