Life Sentence

at 12:35 AM
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Whether you're trying to get a job or rent an apartment, you know the application will ask The Question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

For most people it's an automatic "no." But for millions The Question is an automatic disqualifier - a reminder that even though they've paid their debt to society they're still shadowed by the stigma of a felony conviction.

I'm one of them.

More than 20 years ago - after growing up in San Francisco, going to Catholic schools, and playing music in the city's nightclubs - I was convicted of drug possession for a third time. That earned me a sentence of three to five years in state prison.

I was lucky. The judge offered me  rehab rather than prison. I knew I needed treatment. I entered a residential drug program and emerged 18 months later, clean and sober.


It turned my life around. I earned my master's degree in English, published stories and books. But because of my record, I'm barred from what I really want to do - teach high-school English.

I've stopped applying for jobs in the private sector, where my answer to The Question sends my application to the trash. I've been turned down twice for places to live. My wife and I weren't allowed to adopt children.

My felony conviction is a life sentence. But the stigma is starting to fade.

Last year California prohibited state and local governments from asking about conviction history in the first stage of job applications. Recently San Francisco limited the power of most private companies, as well as landlords for affordable housing, from asking about criminal records. They also must consider how long ago an offense occurred and whether it's relevant to the application.

Punishing prisoners after they've done their time is unfair. It makes finding a job or an apartment harder and is one reason why recidivism is up 500 percent in California since my convictions and the prison population is so high a federal judge has ruled it cruel and unusual punishment.

Listen, if I can turn my life around, anyone can. Our jails and prisons are filled with untapped potential, people who could help lift our country up. We just need a fair chance.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Martin.

Richard Martin is development director for a nonprofit that helps incarcerated people and their families. He lives in San Francisco.