Deborah Reed looks overwhelmed. She speaks softly anyway. But here, in the echoing din of the Hartman Community Center gym, her voice sounds oddly disembodied. It's frequently drowned out by hundreds of voices just like hers, just as weary and exasperated, only louder.
She's clearly put her best foot forward. She's dressed in business casual, and her eyeliner is heavy for the occasion, as is her mascara. Makeup, after all, is what people wear when they're trying to get a job.
How did she get here? Eight and a half years ago, Reed was given probation after pleading no contest to attempted theft, identity theft and forgery charges. She was ordered not to leave the state, she says, and she didn't — until she learned that her daughter, who lived out of state, was dying of cancer. She'd only recently lost her husband.
"Everything would have been expunged from my record, but during probation my daughter had melanoma," Reed says. She looks around in confusion, as myriad long lines snake through the deafening gym. "Of course, I wasn't supposed to leave the state, but mothers are going to go to their daughters."
And so she did — thus violating her probation. The mark on her record follows her. It's made everything more difficult, but one problem stands above the rest: finding work. That's why Reed has chosen to spend her Saturday morning at the North Nashville community center, at an event for people just like her — an overcrowded job fair specifically for felons.
Doors weren't even scheduled to open until 10. But by 8:30 a.m. April 23, some 500 people in need of work had already lined up outside, ex-offenders all. Some needed to get their driver's licenses back. Others wanted to restore their voting rights. Still others hoped to learn how to get their criminal records expunged, or to seek other legal advice.
The job fair was scheduled to last four hours. Only an hour in, however, an estimated 1,000 people had already passed through the doors. And that was just a guess, courtesy of District 19 Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, who organized the event with the NAACP, the C.E. McGruder Family Resource Center, and her mother, state Rep. Brenda Gilmore. Her unofficial tally after the event put the total attendance at more than a few thousand — a sign of how tough things are out there for former offenders hoping to lead a straight life.
Attendees ranged in age from early 20s to pushing retirement. Most dressed to leave an impression, or as close as they could get — from business suits with a courier's bag slung over the shoulder to jeans, shorts and sundresses. (Bonus points to the beige tailored three-piece suit punctuated with brown snakeskin boots.)
Inside the gym, expressions varied as widely. There were jaws set with determination and confidence; there were teeth gritted with been-here-done-this frustration. Others just looked beat — as if except for that certain set of circumstances, life should've been different.
"You see people out here — these are people's husbands, wives, sons, daughters — so we know that it's hard," Erica Gilmore says. "And sometimes people are not as compassionate as they should be toward [ex-offenders]. They've served their time."
Figuring out a way to employ this stigmatized segment of society is something Brenda Gilmore believes should concern the rest of the community as well.
"We want them to have jobs," she says, "because that means as taxpayers less social programs that we will have to support them."
The event comes at a time of increasing difficulty for felons trying to reintegrate into society. The odds are against them because of a down economy, of course. But ever-tightening laws are starting to make the "rehabilitation" element of serving time more a cruel joke than a plausible possibility for some.
"I think with the environment that we're in, [the laws regarding felons] are more restrictive," Brenda Gilmore says.
In 2006, the General Assembly simplified the voting rights restoration process for felons once they have completed their sentence — no longer requiring them, for example, to appear before a judge to do so. A caveat tacked on to that legislation, however, requires felons to be current on any child support payments and pay off victim restitution before they can get their voting rights back.
That condition had already raised concern from voters' rights advocates. But last year the state legislature supplemented it with a law requiring those leaving prison to pay all fines and court fees before their voting rights can be fully restored. That bill passed through the state House of Representatives easily with a 70-23 vote in favor, on its way to becoming law. A bill that would have removed those requirements died in a House subcommittee this year.
This legislative session also brought to the table a proposed law that would broaden the permanent prohibition of convicted felons' voting rights. Tennessee already prohibits from voting or registering to vote those convicted of certain crimes including bribery, misconduct involving a publicly elected official, interference with government operation and felony sex offenses involving a minor.
But the recently approved bill, which cleared the House in early April with a 79-7 vote (with three members present but not voting) and the state Senate shortly after with a 32-0 vote, would expand the voter rights prohibition in Tennessee to include anyone convicted of the above offenses in any other state or federal court — thus increasing the potential number of felons disenfranchised in the state.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee challenged the 2006 child support requirement. The ACLU filed a complaint here in U.S. District Court on behalf of three felons, whose voting rights weren't restored because they hadn't yet paid off their legal financial obligations.
That court ruled against the defendants and ACLU's complaint. Last fall the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court ruling. The ACLU has asked the Supreme Court to consider the case.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, says regaining the right to vote is an important step to reintegrating someone who has paid their debt to society. When allowed to be a part of the community, that person is more apt to "play by the rules," Weinberg says.
When the child support requirement passed, the ACLU likened it to a "poll tax." It doesn't make sense, Weinberg argues, to withhold rights from someone fresh out of prison based on their ability to pay.
"When you're leaving prison and you're suddenly confronted with any number of issues — find a roof, find a job ... try to put your life back together — to also deny an individual the right to vote based on his or her financial status seems not only harsh but [regresses] back to giving people rights based solely on their financial status," Weinberg says.
For many ex-offenders, the stigma of a felony denies them a fighting chance at finding that roof, that job. For the duration of the job fair, the table for the Metro Public Defender's Office drew the longest lines. There, assistant public defenders, such as Georgia Sims, answered one question over and over.
"I would say 98 percent of our questions have been about expungement," Sims says. "People wanting to know how to get their records expunged. And the basic message is that you can't."
There is a misconception, Sims says, that if a conviction is old — 15, 30, 40 years — it goes away. Typically, though, most don't. And there's another economic component: Often defendants who can't afford to make bond will plead guilty to a charge instead of staying in jail and fighting a case.
"There are folks that feel like they didn't have any other option ... to avoid getting that conviction in the first place. And now that conviction is following them throughout their life," Sims says.
Fourteen years ago, Juerno Brown pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and theft of property. Since he got out of prison 10 years ago, he's learned, perhaps not surprisingly, that employers tend to balk at those charges. He's jumped through many of the hoops presented to ex-offenders, and he's had some of his rights restored — he has a driver's license, for instance.
But in the past decade, he's had close to 15 jobs, often through a temporary agency. Inevitably, employers end up firing Brown once they learn he's a felon.
"A lot of them have been like restaurant jobs or cooking or something like that, but as far as a major job, I've never had a real job," Brown says, shaking his head in frustration. He had hoped for a larger showing of employers who would be willing to hire a man with a record such as his — which he learned that Saturday couldn't be expunged.
Two years ago, Brown earned two degrees from the National College of Business & Technology, one in computer application technology and one in business administration management. He has his business license and wants to start his own moving company, a way to bypass of the problem he has now. But he can't find the necessary startup money.
Looking around, Brown says he sees a lot of people like himself. He calls them good people with resumes, skills and degrees who want to work, but aren't getting a fair shake in the wake of poor decisions in their past.
"A lot of these people are going to be felons for the rest of their life, so they're going to go through this the rest of their life," Brown says.
As for Deborah Reed, she stands for a while in the center of the gym, looking uncertain where to go next or whom to ask. There are so few jobs, and yet so many people.