In Oneida County, A Second Chance For Some Ex-Cons
Sixty-five million Americans have a criminal record. That “scarlet letter” often impacts their opportunities after they’re released from prison or jail. A new program in Oneida County is giving some ex-cons a chance at a clean slate, under certain conditions. Our story comes from Rashida Patrick with theNew York Reporting Project at Utica College.
After 20 years, Denise Gregory no longer has a criminal record.
"It's overwhelming right now," she says.
Gregory is standing outside the Utica City Courthouse after the final step in long legal process.
"It's a long time coming. You make mistakes and you don't often get a chance like this to fix it."
She had been using drugs for decades when in 1995 her addiction caught up with her.
"I think there was 8-10 bags of crack-cocaine when I was arrested that night. There was actaully a raid in the apartment I was living in," she says.
Gregory was sentenced to one to three years. She spent some of that time downstate, in Bedford Hills prison.
"I'm not raised like this, so pulling up to Bedford Hills, there was some scary looking people. The one thing you learn in jail is that you never, ever have a moment alone."
For Gregory, prison was a turning point. She says that if she had not done time, she would not be who she is today.
"The first thing I did when I got out of prison was decided to go to school, to do what I should have done when I was younger. I enrolled in MVCC and I always wanted to do social work. They believe in change, they're not going to not hire people who have made mistakes."
She’s been working ever since. Now she’s an adult education instructor at Oneida County BOCES, but her past was always present. To help people like her, Oneida County District attorney Scott McNamara created Operation Second Chance.
The program allows felons a chance to get their criminal record cleaned if their crime was non-violent and occurred at least 15 years ago.
McNamara started the program when he realized there was no way for people like Densie Gregory to get their record cleaned without appealing to the governor.
"The more I was thinking about it, I started to think in a way, we should reward people or give people the opportunity that have made one mistake in their life. We should give them the opportunity to be able to see if they could get that erased."
To qualify for the program, ex-felons must have stayed out of trouble and prove to a committee appointed by the DA that they are contributing members of society. Committee chair Jennifer Dormio says each case is carefully considered.
"We are the only people in the state as far as I know that have a program like this. We scrutinize, we really look at everybody and what they are doing, what happened at the time, kind of where they were at that time in their life and what they have done since then."
This process could take over a year, but once completed it’s as if they had never been convicted.
"Once it's dismissed it's sealed, it gets cleared off their record and that question that everybody fears on that job application or anything is no, because their conviction has been overturned."
Denise Gregory wanted to get her record erased because she knew what it would mean to her family.
"My family suffered with my actions, you know, in a lot of ways. I'm sure it was frustrating, I'm sure it was embarrassing, I'm sure they were scared for me a lot."
Gregory is only the second person to successfully clear their record under this program. Now the DA has asked her to help decide future cases.