Commissioner tries to motivate other ex-felons

Commissioner uses his own difficulties to motivate others

A person convicted of a felony receives two punishments: a prison sentence and a prison record. The latter holds consequences for a lifetime.

In 2009, Matt Aitken was elected county commissioner for District 1. It had been two decades since he'd served a prison sentence for selling and using drugs. In the ensuing years Aitken had developed a prison ministry and maintained a strong employment record, but his credibility in the community he once wronged was still called into question.

"Some of the ministers said I shouldn't be qualified to run for office in this city, ... that a convicted felon shouldn't have this opportunity. That was hard," Aitken said.

Redemption is something ex-felons must always work for, even many years after committing an offense.

In October, Aitken held a meeting for ex-felons in his district and shared the steps he took to restore his own reputation.

"District 1 is a very high prison-producing population," Aitken said. "When I ran for office and went around knocking on doors, a lot people said they were having trouble getting jobs. Many have issues with their records."

Felonies, such as murder, theft and rape, are serious crimes. But some nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession (less than an ounce of marijuana is an exception), are also felonies.

In Georgia, felons lose the right to sit on a jury or run for elected office, unless those rights are specifically restored. The right to vote is denied while in prison or on probation but is reinstated afterward. Felons may not receive food stamps, welfare or school loans.

Most importantly, felons are often denied jobs. They can also lose or be denied professional licenses. That can affect whole neighborhoods in low-income, high-crime areas.

Tony Lowery is the director of policy and advocacy for Safer Foundation, an Illinois nonprofit that gives employment assistance to people with criminal records. He said giving ex-felons a chance to redeem themselves is not being "soft on crime." It increases public safety.

"Some people say being denied a job is just part of the punishment. But you can have someone who's completed his sentence, never committed another crime and is doing everything he's supposed to do. Is this person never supposed to work again?" Lowery asked. "Ninety percent of people in prison are coming home."

The Rev. Larry Fryer has spent a year helping ex-felons restore their standing in the community and improve their chances for employment.

In recent months he held a series of meetings -- and also coordinated with Aitken -- to teach ex-felons steps to get their lives back on track. Fryer took criticism for doing so. But the meetings were also well attended.

Fryer can identify with the critics. His family has been victimized by crime, and it's been hard to forgive. But sometimes drug crimes are driven by circumstance, he said.

"I learned in the Bible there is such a thing as a greater and a lesser sin. Being a murderer is a greater sin than selling drugs," Fryer said. "I think it would cut down on crime if we could get some of these people back to work."

An ex-felon must wait two years from the end of a sentence to apply for a restoration of rights, according the State Board of Pardons and Paroles Web site. Ten years must elapse without a conviction before he or she may hold office.

An ex-felon may apply for a pardon five years after serving a sentence, which implies that the state has forgiven the crime.

But neither a restoration of rights nor a pardon expunges a criminal record. Ex-felons must still admit to the conviction when they apply for jobs.

Even so, the steps help restore one's reputation in the community, Aitken said. An employer thinks differently toward someone who's been granted forgiveness by a state that had once condemned him.

"It's like broken relationships. We have to keep proving ourselves to society, that we're worthy of restoration," he said.

"People look down on (ex-felons), but we've all been affected by those things. ... We all want some type of hope when we're in hopeless situations. People want to see people who have been redeemed because you know there's been many people impacted by crime."