‘How long must I pay?’: Virtual town hall focuses on support, sources for convicted felons

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kenneth Gray said he went to prison for his first felony at 19 years old.

“I had every intention in the world to never go back to prison and change my life,” said Gray.

After being released, he said he tried to get a job but he kept getting denied because he had to keep checking the box that asked if he had ever committed a crime.

“Within 5 years I had went back to prison a second time because I wasn’t able to turn my life around or find employment the first time around,” said Gray.

Gray’s story isn’t unusual.

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The Tennessee Department of Corrections said it’s a story told by a quarter of a million people from across the state over the last 20 years.

“We have these sentencing laws, what is it that when, once they complete their sentence and pay their debt to society we are not removing the felony then?,” asked Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Democrat representing Memphis and parts of Shelby County.

This is one of the reasons why the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) hosted a virtual town hall Thursday night.

Attorneys, prosecutors, judges and lawmakers all weighing in on the problem and the possible solutions.

Senator Raumesh Akbari said the General Assembly lowered the expungement fee from $350 to $180 but she said there’s still so much work to do.

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“We sit in these seats where we can change them and I want us to have the type of meaningful conversation,” said Akbari who represents Memphis and parts of Shelby County. “Because I’m tired of having to tell someone no you can’t expunge your offense because it’s not on the list and oh yes I know you committed that crime as a teenager and now you’re a grandmother – it’s enough of that.”

There was no discussion of exact legislation coming up next year but Republican Rep. Michael Curico said there are more felonies that could be wiped away.

“We want to look at expanding that list, we want to be careful we want to make sure we exclude certain crimes that shouldn’t be allowed to be expunged but we want to go up that list than we have already,” said Rep. Curcio.

There are “Ban the Box” policies at the state and county level, but state lawmakers said the challenges comes with private businesses that don’t have to ban this policy.

Some say there should be an incentive program to encourage private companies to ban the box on their applications.