Op-Ed: ‘My Arrest Record Continues To Impact My Life Today,’ Here’s Why I Believe In The Power Of Second Chances

Sheena Meade, CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative

One May afternoon in 2004, in Florida, my four children – all under the age of 7 – were sitting at home watching Veggie Tales. Two police officers knocked on my door and asked: “Are you Sheena?” I thought they had the wrong home because — why would they be looking for me? I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Two months prior, I’d written a check for $87.26 for groceries for my children, assuming I was good to go — but I wasn’t. The check bounced and returned from the bank as unpaid. Now, two officers were at my house with a warrant for my arrest for ‘making a worthless check under $150’ – a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida.

My bond was $500 — almost six times the amount of the check I wrote. While I was fortunate enough to be released from jail and back home quickly, I didn’t know I would be starting my true sentence soon after.

Similar to millions of people in America, my arrest record became a barrier that impacts my life to this day. Figures show that between 70 to 100 million people in America – that is one in three Americans – have an arrest or conviction record of some kind. Of those millions, 18 million women have an arrest record. 

Having an arrest record can create a myriad of barriers to everything from employment, housing, and education, to even volunteering at your child’s school. There are approximately 44,000 collateral consequences or barriers to employment, education, housing, and more that people face when reentering society after a conviction that can impact them and their families.

However, beyond the tangible barriers we face, stigmas follow us throughout our lives making opportunities to thrive feel even further away. Narratives about people with records often dehumanize their experience and reduce them to their conviction or arrest – but, I know from personal experience, that by doing so we’re not just denying them the right to evolve, we’re denying our communities of something much bigger: social and economic contributions that break cycles and allow everyone to thrive.

In 2008, four years after my arrest, I remember starting my first big job where I wouldn’t be beholden to my record. Still, I felt inadequate because I worried that stigmas from my record would still follow me. From teen parenthood, housing insecurity, barriers to education, and navigating the world with an arrest record, this role was an opportunity for me to put myself and my children on the path to a brighter future. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to pay it forward and do the same for others in my work. Even as I lead The Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), an organization dedicated to advocating for, passing, and implementing laws that automatically clear eligible records for people who’ve completed their sentence and remained crime-free, I still do not have a clean slate in my home state, twenty years after that arrest. 

Our mission at The Clean Slate Initiative is simple. Once someone with an eligible record has paid their debt to society and remained crime-free for a certain period of time, there should be systems in place that automatically clear their record. We’ve helped pass this type of policy in several states and are working in other states campaigning for Clean Slate laws.  I was trusted to steer an organization now active in 28 states, collaborating with a vast network of partners, funders, organizations, faith leaders, policymakers, and more. Twelve states have now adopted Clean Slate laws that provide a pathway to record clearance for over 15 million people. 

Today, more than 30 million people are eligible to get their records cleared but less than 10% of those people can get it done due to unnecessary requirements and red tape that make the process of record clearance difficult to navigate. 

Think about that for a moment. Think about someone in your life who’s had an arrest or conviction. A family member. A friend. A church member. A sorority sister. Think about how their record has impacted their life and what opportunities would look like for them if people no longer defined their potential by their record. Are you planting seeds today that could clear a path to a new beginning for someone else? Have you been a part of a support system that gives others hope for the future? 

Now think about your community. Imagine a community where recidivism was lower, more folks had an opportunity to be employed, get an education, participate at their children’s schools, and contribute to their tax base.  

I challenge you to take a second to think about a moment when you needed a second chance. Reflect on what that did for you when you received it and think about how you’re extending the same to others. Changing the narrative starts with us. 

It starts with combating discrimination and stigmas that lock people into their past mistakes. This is what we all deserve.

That is the power of a second chance. That is the power of a clean slate. 

Sheena Meade is a trusted figure in the realm of criminal justice reform, women’s empowerment, and social justice movements, leaving an indelible imprint on anyone who crosses paths with her. As CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), Sheena leads a national bipartisan effort to advance policy that automatically clears all eligible arrest and conviction records across the United States.

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