Moving on After a Conviction: Restarting Your Life After a Criminal Charge

MGN Online

RENO, NV - We've seen it played out on the national stage. People like George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony can be labeled guilty for life by the public, even after the jury declares they are not guilty. That stigma makes it almost impossible for them to move on.

But we also see it in our own backyard. Living in the 'Biggest Little City', where local news daily displays names and photos of suspects, it can be hard for family members to escape judgment from their neighbors.

That's what Rene Brooksher says it was like after her brother was sent to prison.

"I'd get pulled over for anything and they'd see my last name and say, 'You any relation to Sam?'", she said. "They were always a little bit like, 'Oh we'll he's like this so you're probably like this'".

Eventually Renee found herself with the same reputation as her brother. She was arrested twice on drug related charges. She is now clean, but says moving on after a conviction is one of the hardest things to do. She says it's a continuous battle of proving you're not who society thinks you are.

"I've just been working really hard to prove that I'm done," she said.

Part of proving her worth was getting involved in the Ridge House, a non-profit substance abuse and re-entry facility for ex-offenders.

Dani Abruzzo, an administrative assistant at the Ridge House says what helped her get back on track was going back to school.

"In the end, that's the one thing they can't take away from you."

Part of their work at the Ridge House is finding employment opportunities for the ex-offenders. But finding employers willing to hire them is a struggle.

"Just because they made a bad decision doesn't mean they are a bad person," she said. Unfortunately, many employers will see a conviction on a resume, and write the applicant off.

"Once they see criminal background at all, they automatically go to the top 3, you know murder, child abuse, and rape," Abruzzo said.

So should we be so quick to judge a conviction?

Daniel Lisoni grew up in a good home. He served honorably in the military and had a promising career as a criminal investigator, until addiction got in the way.

Now when you look at his record, next to war veteran is another title.

"In this state, I'm a burglar."

All because he entered into a store with the intent to commit larceny.

"I never broke into anyone's home, or sneaked in to steal their jewels. But I'm still a burglar."

He wants people to know about his past, because it proves that anyone can become a felon.

Houston says his biggest frustration with the justice system is how easy it is for a person's future to be ruined.

"You could have been 19-years-old, go outside a bar, and decide because the restroom is crowded you are going to urinate," he explained. "The police spot you, they cite you for indecent exposure, now you're a sex offender for that. Imagine going to an employer with that on your record."

He believes the problem stems from the way we view drugs and alcohol.

"We tend to think of addiction like it's a choice. Like it's recreational and it's just not."

He points out, that in the state of Nevada, if you are caught with one ounce of a white powder, like cocaine, in your possession, whether it's your first offense or not, you are looking at a minimum sentence of 25 years.

The sentence for murder?

"Same. Figure that out," Houston said. "We incarcerate kids for decades for drug offenses. There are people on violent sex offenses that are possibly doing less time. There are people who kill people who do less time. And no one cares until it happens to them or their family."

Lisoni says during his stay in prison, he met people he believes should stay there. But he also met people, both in prison and during the re-entry process, that simply made one bad choice.

Like a 25-year-old Afghan War veteran.

"He did a couple tours in Afghanistan, got messed up on heroin while he was overseas, alcohol, and such, but he's a good kid," Lisoni said. "I've kind of taken him under my wing.

"I get so angry with prosecutors when they say, 'Well, your client should have thought about that," Houston said. "Well if that was the case we wouldn't be human."

Houston says there are people and organizations working to adopt rehab as the first step for people arrested for drug charges, instead of immediate conviction.

"There are judges in this jurisdiction who have become especially enlightened, saying 'Maybe we don't want to keep locking up people with a drug problem'", he said.

But the best way to help lower the about of 'felons' in the area, Houston says, is legislation.

"Has jail worked? Are we better of since we started the so called 'War on Drugs?'", he asked. 'No, we're not. Now we've created generations of felons. We've debilitated young people from being productive in society."

He says changing the laws will help put people with drug and alcohol addictions into rehab instead of prison. But he doesn't believe that will happen anytime soon.

"We can't legislate it because you're not going to get legislators to say, 'Okay, I want to be soft on crime.'", he said. "They're not going to be in office very long and they want to keep their pensions.

For now, there are places like the Ridge House, that can help ex-offenders get the addiction help they need when they re-enter society.

Abruzzo says there are employers willing to hire ex-offenders. She says the Ridge House often recommends they start by looking in the food industry.

"We recommend restaurants because you can start behind the scenes, and work your way up," she said.

She says the best way to help ex-offenders get back on their feet is by giving them a job. Abruzzo says, next time you see an applicant with a conviction ask them about it instead of brushing that person aside. On the flip side, she says ex-offenders need to be honest with potential future employers.

"We always say it's easier to defend the truth than argue a lie," she said.

To help ex-offenders learn better job hunting and interviewing skills, the Ridge House is taking part in a Career Resource Fair for Ex-Offenders. During the fair, ex-offenders will learn application etiquette, how to dress for success, financial education, and resume writing.

The fair will be held March 5th from 10:00am- 2:00pm at the Evelyn Mount Community Center at 1301 Valley Road in Reno.

Attending the fair will guarantee entry into a job fair held at Baldini's on March 26th.

To register, call 775-322-8941