Proposition 47 Gives Former Felons a New Chance

Sholonda Jackson and her son, Joseph, outside their Hayward home. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

On a recent morning, Sholanda Jackson dropped off her 8-year-old son at drum lessons before heading into work at an Oakland nonprofit.

It sounds like a routine day for a mom -- and it is. But for Jackson, it's also  a remarkable turnaround: She spent her 20s addicted to crack and in and out of prison 13 times.

Her mother gave Jackson her first taste of the addictive drug when she was a teenager. On Christmas Day when she was 18, Jackson went to jail for the first time -- and she cycled in and out of the system until her early 30s, when a public defender asked if she was interested in drug treatment.

Now Jackson has been sober 11 years. She’s married, living in Hayward, has earned her bachelor’s degree in social services and hopes to pursue a master’s degree. She works at Operation Dignity, which aids homeless veterans, and volunteers with Oakland Communty Organizations, helping tell people about Proposition 47 and other programs.

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“People said I was hopeless, right? The parole officer, the parole board, when I was in prison. They said, 'She’s hopeless.' But that’s not true. I don’t think there’s such a thing,” Jackson said recently as she recalled her turbulent past.

Many of the changes Jackson has made are thanks to her sobriety and hard work. But she’s also getting help from a California ballot measure passed last November by state voters. Proposition 47 reduced many nonviolent felonies -- such as drug possession and theft charges -- to misdemeanors, and it allows people previously convicted of those crimes to petition a court to wipe those felonies from their record.

For Jackson, it’s an opportunity to literally wipe the slate clean, something that could allow her to pursue career opportunities once out of reach.

She’s hoping to get a master’s degree in social work, and says a record free of felonies could be key to making career moves.

Sholonda Jackson's degrees are displayed in her Hayward home.
Sholonda Jackson's degrees are displayed in her Hayward home. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

"Even though right now it’s not affecting me as far as work, when I get my master’s degree, what if I want to go work for the VA or for Kaiser?” she said. “I’m sure it would come up … I think if I got it all off my record … then I would be free to move around.”

San Francisco resident Sofala Mayfield also got a second chance, thanks to Prop. 47.

His life began to fall apart in his teens, after his grandmother suffered a stroke and his mother fell back into drug addiction. After a series of minor run-ins with the law as a teenager, he was convicted of felony theft two years ago for stealing an iPhone.

Sholonda Jackson sits at her desk in Oakland.
Sholonda Jackson sits at her desk in Oakland. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Mayfield has three younger siblings that live with him. But he said when he got out of jail, he couldn’t find a job.

“I didn’t get any calls back, I would call them back -- our hiring manager’s not in, you know. I just had a feeling that's what it was, just me having the felony on my record and stuff,” he said.

At the urging of his probation officer, Mayfield called the public defender’s office and asked if he would qualify to reduce his felony to a misdemeanor under Prop. 47. Within a month, a court had approved the change.

He now has two jobs, is helping support his family and hopes to go to culinary school.

"I was just very grateful," he said.

Stories like these are familiar to Vincent Andrade. He’s chief deputy public defender in Merced County. His office holds a legal clinic every Monday morning for offenders curious about Prop. 47 relief. There’s so much interest, he said, that they have to cap attendance at 10 people a week.

Andrade says an old felony can stigmatize people for the rest of their lives -- preventing them from getting jobs, financial aid and housing.

“What does it lead you to not seek out because you don't think you’ll even accomplish what you are trying to do, because you’ll be cut off because of your felony conviction, so why bother even seeking better employment or improving yourself some other way?” he said.

“It really takes away a person’s initiative if they don't think they have a future.”

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