Kofi Darku: 00:00 On this episode of the Skill Up Build Up podcast, we have the executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, Chris Purnell, and he's going to tell us about things we can do for the justice-involved population and how there are resources, and hope, to help us overcome. Let's go!
Kofi Darku: 00:24 Welcome back to another episode of the Skill Up Build Up podcast powered by the Morales Group. On today's episode we have Chris Purnell, executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic here in Indianapolis. Chris, welcome.
Chris Purnell: 00:38 Thanks Kofi. And thank you especially for getting my title right, and the name of the organization right. That was fantastic.
Kofi Darku: 00:44 Very few people know behind the scenes that sometimes I'm imagining new titles for people, and thanks to the power of editing, I have gotten all their titles right in these recordings, so I'm glad I got it right the first time, Chris. Chris, as executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, and for everyone listening, we're grateful to have another voice on, that can help us shed light to some of the barriers that our second-chance population or our justice-involved populations go through. Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic does a great job of not only helping those who are going through a transition from being incarcerated to finding life outside of incarceration, they help connect them with resources, but they also help them with one thing that's really, really important in the work world, which is expungement. But, I'm not trying to steal his thunder, but I do want you all to know that we have intentionally focused on expanding the talent pipeline to people with disabilities, LGBTQ, justice-involved and other underrepresented groups, just to make sure employers know that there are other resources out there when you're so desperate for talent. I mean there is a war going on for talent right now and if you aren't being smart or considerate about justice-involved individuals, you're taking away a large part of that pie in terms of that, that accessible talent that's right there in your backyard. So yeah, enough, I'm coming in very excited and passionate about advocating for this group. Chris, can you please share what's your background is and how you came to become executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic?
Chris Purnell: 02:26 Yeah. Yeah. So, I started at the clinic back in 2008. It was my first gig out of law school and I can still remember my first case as an intern at the clinic. It was my last semester of law school and I was given an asylum case. So it was someone that was fleeing persecution from their home country and they were seeking shelter in the United States, in Indianapolis, Indiana. And so a lot of the work that the clinic does is with marginalized populations more generally, people that don't have access to the levers of justice that they need in order to thrive. And a huge population of people that we serve are immigrants, refugees, asylees, undocumented immigrants, that sort of thing. Yeah, it's about 40 to 50% of the folks that we walk alongside of. And so I remember when I was, when I was this guy who is 24 year old, fresh, not even fresh out of law school yet, law student, I realized two things pretty fast. The first one was that for a person to get an attorney for an asylum case, it costs about $15,000, and that's in 2008 dollars. Now it's probably somewhere in the realm of $25,000, because it's such an intricate and nuanced area of law and it's so important. This guy didn't have the chance to stop by his Ugandan ATM and pick up $15,000 in order to come to the states and get an attorney, and even if he did, he didn't have the money in order to do that. And so realizing that, but for a place like the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, I don't know where this guy would've gone. I don't know what would have happened. Because if you try to get asylum on your own versus having an attorney, your chances drop dramatically when you don't have an attorney, of actually getting asylum. And it's the closest thing in the civil legal world to an actual death penalty case. Because if you're fleeing for your life from your country and you're forced to go back, that's almost as good as a death sentence. So here I am at 24, working with this guy and realizing that thing pretty fast and realizing the importance of the clinic and realizing that there is such a gap between those who do have access to justice and those who don't, and that gap is made up of money. It's just economics. And realizing that is a grievous injustice, that that should not be the case. And so I eventually got employed by the clinic, in 2008 when the financial world was on fire and banks were shutting down and bailouts were happening. And, in 2010 became the managing attorney, and in 2014, became the executive director of the clinic. So I've just kind of hung around. They can't get rid of me. It's been great.
Kofi Darku: 04:58 You've seen a lot of people come and go, you've seen, I'm sure, the broad spectrum, in terms of happy endings and some really sad, probably not so good endings as well. One thing that makes our show really hum is when we can go deep with the story. And I believe on your website you have links, to some of the individuals that have received services from NCLC. And so, I want to be able to talk about those stories. Right now, are there any stories off the top of your head that sort of resonate with you? And it doesn't have to be the ones that are actually on your website. If there's any story, could you help our audience understand some of the stories that you've witnessed?
Chris Purnell: 05:47 Well, let me give, let me give a happy story. But to your point, you're right. Like, this world is not full of happy endings and happy stories -- but it's really great we can find those. So there's one particular story that, relates to the topic that we're talking about, which is a woman named Latasha. So Latasha, she was seeking an expungement of her criminal record and she comes to the clinic and, her story is just pretty astounding because it is so very common, right? So she had her first kid when she was 14. She had her second kid when she was 17, and she was really just striving to get by and -- forget about thriving. She's just trying to survive with these two kids.
Kofi Darku: 06:32 Amen. You're right. When you're 17, and you have two kids... We are, everyone at this table is over 17. And I'm sure if we had two kids at 17, it would've been a hard situation.
Chris Purnell: 06:44 What a mess. Yeah. We had our first kid at 27 and I was still a hot mess, you know, like it's, it's remarkable to think about a decade earlier. So she comes to the clinic because she had a criminal record because she got caught stealing diapers. Here's this woman that couldn't afford diapers for her children and that's what caused her criminal record. And she couldn't move forward. She couldn't get a better job, she couldn't get a living wage. And every step that she took, she was totally dogged by this scarlet letter of a criminal record. So she comes to the clinic and we're able to get her that expungement, and just the feeling of relief and the weight off her shoulders... She was able to get a better job. She works at IU North now. And one of the things that's, that's sort of striking about her story is not just the fact that she was able to find a better job and move forward in that way, but just all these other like unforeseen repercussions, beautiful repercussions of getting a criminal record expunged. So she talks about how she was driving up to a Speedway gas station and there were officers around and she said, "you know, before I got my criminal record expunged, I would have totally turned around and gone the opposite direction," because that was her relationship with law enforcement. That's right. That's right. That's right. Hightail it the other way. But what she realized was that something had changed in her as a result of what a court of law had decided about her criminal record. There is, there is something powerful about a court of law saying that criminal record that you have no longer exists, or at least it no longer exists for the vast majority of people. And it had an effect in her. And so she actually talks about how she went up to one of the officers and said, "hey, can I take your picture?" And he said, "that's fine." She took his picture and she said, "hey, just so you know, I would've totally gone the other direction if this was 10 years ago, but now that I have my criminal record expunged, I feel comfortable around you, and I like you now." And he said, "well, that's great," and now they're Facebook friends. Like it's so weird. That kind of stuff is what I get really excited about. The employment is extremely important for thriving and flourishing as a human on this planet. But it's those kinds of unintended consequences, that shaping of a human, and them feeling like they have hope and that relational categories that were closed to them, i.e. not being able to interact with law enforcement, are now open. Because of what has been decreed by a court. That's such a powerful thing to me. And so that, that's just one story that we keep coming back to. I was talking to a staff member before I came here and I was like, yeah, I think I'm going to talk about Latasha. She goes, "I cry about Latasha's story story on the regular." And I'm like, yeah, that's, that feels right. That feels right.
Kofi Darku: 09:18 Wow. I mean, that story encompasses a lot. Just to touch on it a little bit here, you have a young person who, due to her actions, she's a mother and she's a young mother, but in order to thrive, or make it as a mother, she needs some basic things and she resorts to stealing the things that it takes to be a mother, which I find kind of unfortunately poetic that, you know, she had to steal to be a mother, but then there are consequences for that type of acquisition. So she now has this record, but really she was just trying to survive as a mother, but to know that she went through those situations and here she ended up incarcerated, and therefore gave herself even greater limitations, to know that she's been able to break through them. And, and to the point to psychologically know how she would have behaved, the old Latasha, but the new Latasha, and now that she adopts this new self will say, "no, I will go and stand beside the police officer. I will ask the police officer to take a picture with me." I'm like, wow, that is growth right there. And I find that story to be really, really phenomenal.
Chris Purnell: 10:35 Well, and it shows you something too, right? So Matt Desmond, who wrote a great book called "Evicted," he talks about how there is so much talent and ingenuity and potential locked up in those who are wrestling with poverty, that we're all just missing out on. Because what are they trying to figure out? Well, they're trying to figure out "how do I make sure that I can pay both my rent and my food and for diapers all at the same time?" They're spending their brain power and their talent on those kinds of questions rather than spending it on how can we make the world more generally a more fit place to live for humans? And how do we, how do we move forward with some of the bigger societal issues that we have and -- forget about scientific advancement and technology, right? These are folks that are spending great brainpower on things that you and I just kind of take for granted. And so to Latasha's story, here's a woman who is extremely bright, extremely bright, and she's spending her mental power on "how do I get diapers for my kids," which is, which is the deep injustice here. But at any point in time that the clinic or other great organizations out there can kind of step in and intervene and say, "no, we want to, we want to help you unlock the potential that is already there." That's a beautiful thing. It's a beautiful thing.
Kofi Darku: 11:47 So, I'm happy you started with a feel-good story because we do have to get into some of the nitty gritty. "Recidivism" is a term I became more familiar with in post-secondary world. It wasn't that apparent to me before I was in a college setting and we're talking about it, but essentially, you know... It's going back, well, it's recidivism. I guess, it's a complex thing or it doesn't have to be that complex to explain, but when you are going back to jail, essentially that is recidivism. Is that correct?
Chris Purnell: 12:27 That's right.
Kofi Darku: 12:27 Going back to jail is, and I don't know the proper verb for it. So I just keep saying recidivism.
Chris Purnell: 12:33 Well, it's kind of a goofy one. It's "recidivating." When you recidivate, that's when you, when you go back.
Kofi Darku: 12:38 I swear I'm learning something on each episode. So "recidivating." And the reason why I want to talk about that is because oftentimes when you are stuck in generational poverty and you have seen a small spectrum in terms of how people survive and live, you do the things that may not be the right things, but it's the thing that you've learned. And so I always find it fascinating that when people get caught either trying to survive -- now I'm not going to excuse the people that have done other crimes that are not so easily excusable and they should have been more accountable -- but when you are caught breaking a law because you're trying to survive, I find it's going to be very difficult that, should you serve your time in jail, you come out, you'll find a better way to do what got you in jail the first time. And so it's very, it's a conundrum for me, in terms of, if we're going to label the justice-involved as not being trustworthy, well, how do they get a path to become trustworthy? How do they gain resources to understand the better ways of doing things? And so, can you touch on some things you've learned about recidivism and how you overcome recidivism in your line of work?
Chris Purnell: 13:53 Recidivism is, in my mind, one of the major issues that shows just how incredibly broken our criminal justice system is. A person can recidivate in a couple of different ways. There are two big categories. The first category is that there's a brand new offense, right? Someone goes in to, to a period of incarceration because of armed robbery, right? Let's say that happens. And they serve their time and they get out and let's say they engage in armed robbery again. That's one way of recidivating, and that does happen, on a fairly regular basis. But then there's another way of recidivating which is a little bit more troubling. And that is a person who goes in, serves their time and maybe they have a probation requirement that requires them to meet with the probation officer or a PO, or maybe they have some fines, fees and costs they need to continue to pay as a result of their criminal justice involvement. And let's say they don't have the money to pay those things. If you rack up enough of those offenses, then you will go back to jail, which that is the majority of folks that are getting recidivated.
Kofi Darku: 15:01 So you essentially because you are poor and stuck in poverty, you're now condemned.
Chris Purnell: 15:07 That's right. That's right. And just the number of times they have to meet with people, and the number of drug drops depending on the kind of offense that they have, can really mess up your ability to do that thing that we're here to talk about, which is get a job and keep a job. Because if you're having to leave all the time at various hours during the normal working hours, it's going to be very difficult for you to find what you would, what you and I would call like a normal job, nine to five. And so recidivism is a great challenge. It's a great challenge. And I feel like that's something that I didn't quite understand before I got involved in this work. I just kind of thought that you've got people that are more prone to criminality or, and I never would have said this, but you've got people that just can't get it together. But as I've learned to walk with people that are in stages of generational poverty and people for whom hope is not a word that they hear a lot of, it's really shown me just how privileged I was and what kind of background I was coming from to just say, "oh, well I guess they're just kind of more prone to criminality." Like some people are more prone to peanut allergies or whatever it is. It's fatalistic, but there's a flip side to that. There are elements that make people more likely to get criminally justice-involved. Sometimes it's your zip code, sometimes the color of your skin, sometimes it's your socioeconomic background. Those things we have shown to have a connection to whether you're likely to get criminally justice-involved or not. So Bryan Stevenson, who created the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and wrote a wonderful book called "Just Mercy," he says that about one in seven African American males will have some kind of criminal justice involvement during the context of their lives. One in seven. That is a great injustice, right? And that shouldn't be the case, that background and skin color shouldn't be a determiner for whether you're more likely to have a run-in with the police or not. But it's simply true because you're gonna have more cops in particular zip codes than you are in others, and that's going to be a really difficult thing to kind of navigate. So once I started kind of digging in deeper and reading really great books like Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow," I think that there was a book by James Forman that came out a couple of years ago called "Locking Up Our Own," which is a really good one. Obviously Bryan Stevenson's got some great material out there. Once I started digging in more and thinking about the overarching context of the work that we do at the clinic, it really helped me to see that, yes, there are some really striking and tragic forces at play in our systems, but that there is still hope. There's still hope, and I feel like those who do this work well and do this work over the long-term are able to hold those two things together. That yes, there are forces that are arrayed against you that have been arrayed for the last three centuries, but there's still something you can do. There's still something that you can actually take ownership over, and you still have agency. And that I think is a, is a very powerful thing to push into for folks that are in generational poverty or that are caught in a cycle of behavioral health issues that might lead to a period of incarceration.
Kofi Darku: 18:17 Yeah. Wow. That's very powerful stuff there. And I have heard of a number of the names you've mentioned, these authors, but I'm happy our audience is becoming familiar with these names as well. Bryan Stevenson has done some phenomenal work and "Just Mercy" is a book that I just picked up. So I will be digging in, knowing that I'm looking for the one in seven black men will have criminal justice involvement stat in there. And I'm like, I'm waiting to see that now. Thank you for giving me the heads up there. But let's stay on recidivism because I'm thinking about, we have this workforce and some of your best workers are going to be workers that are trying to change the outcomes for their family that they witnessed for themselves when they grew up. So many people coming to this country are operating from that very thinking, "I want better opportunities for my family and the younger people in my family." However, if there's been this limited set of things you know, you can do and gain employment from, or I shouldn't even say gain employment, "get money from," because there's a lot of black market or illegal things that happen amongst those who are poor. It leaves for a greater likelihood that eventually you will get caught if you're doing something illegal. And if that's just your skillset, you need to somehow figure out a new one. So, if there are ways that people can reduce their rate of recidivating -- hmm using it in a sentence -- what are some of those ways, Chris, that you have learned from your experience?
Chris Purnell: 19:52 A couple of quick, just numbers as we can dive into the, the good news or sort of the... After the diagnosis, what's the treatment? So in Indiana, a total of 15,690 people, 15,679 excuse me, were released from incarceration in 2015 and about 5,296 recidivated -- that's over the entire state. That's about a third that recidivate.
Kofi Darku: 20:20 From 2015 already.
Chris Purnell: 20:23 And in Marion County -- cause what they do is they wait three years to see how many have recidivated over the course of that time -- in Marion County alone, about 2,871 were released in 2015 and 1,261 had recidivated, closer to half. That's about 44%. So it certainly is a huge number. And it's, it's persistent, right? It's persistent that we see this number sort of pop up across the state and in Marion County. And it hasn't really changed much over the course of time. It just sort of sits there. It's been a little bit higher in some areas and a little bit lower in some areas. But around 44% to about half is where it kind of lands in Marion County. What's been really interesting for me to watch as we talk with people that have been criminally justice-involved or have been previously incarcerated is just how important relationships are to them, both in them becoming criminally justice-involved -- so a lot of them talk about how they hung around with the wrong crowd, how there were some bad influences in their life that kind of trained them up in criminality, for lack of a better term. So the power of negative relationships, but also the power of positive relationships. And there was a really interesting study done, I think back in 2015 or '16, that was trying to measure the likelihood of a person who was still engaged in some kind of positive relationship, what was the likelihood of recidivating, because of that relationship? And what they showed was that people that were incarcerated that had a positive relationship, and usually it was a family member, something like that, but just a positive relationship, that they were 25% less likely to recidivate, 25% less likely to recidivate based off of a technical rule violation. So we talked about those two big buckets. One is you commit a new offense, one is that you have a rule violation, either probation or fees, that kind of stuff. So they were a quarter less likely to recidivate based off of a rule violation and that they're 13% less likely to recidivate, period. So it's a really powerful thing to realize that we can have a huge impact on other people. And that's why I think that that as both churches and organizations and nonprofits think about how do we, how do we walk alongside people that are either still incarcerated or about to be people that are ex-offenders, that are returning citizens? How do we walk alongside of them? And, my sense of it is that you just need to engage in relationship with them and walk with them through the messiness that's going to be part of what it's like to come back and live life on the outside. Because some of these folks, they've been in for 10, 15, 20 years, and so they're coming back to a world that looks drastically different than what it did before. It's almost like coming into a new country. I didn't share this before about my own personal background, but my brother spent 14 years incarcerated. And I remember when he got out in 2011, we went down to see him cause he was, he was in Houston. And the first thing we did is we went to, I think Walmart, to pick up some, you know, clothes and stuff because they don't give you a whole lot of stuff when you get out of incarceration. It's 20 bucks and a bus pass. And we were walking around the electronics section and it was like, little mind bombs were going off inside of his brain. Each and every single time we looked at something like, for instance, and this is kind of dumb, but it's illustrative, we looked at the TVs, the TVs that were out, cause they're all flat screen by 2011, and he went in the late 90s. Oh yeah, the big boxes, right? The cathode ray tubes. Yeah. And he's looking at these things and he's looking behind it and he literally said, "where's the rest of it? Where's the rest of the TV?" So really sweet, right? But it just shows you that the world keeps going on, right? The world keeps moving, people continue to change. And so how do you help a person navigate? There was a book that just came out about a year ago called "An American Marriage," and it talks about this very thing, a person who goes to prison, unlawfully, and his wife at the time, she's wrestling with, "do I carry on without him as he's in prison?" He's doing his own thing in prison, just trying to survive. And it just shows you the kinds of impossible choices that people have to make when they are inside and when they're trying to return as citizens.
Kofi Darku: 24:42 Yeah.
Chris Purnell: 24:43 So relationships are key. I think relationships are key and that's something that we try to do with the clinic. We try to engage people relationally. Yes, we're attorneys. And yes, we're really trying our best to make sure that we're, that we're looking at the problem and providing the legal solution, but we're also human, and part of a person's ability to reenter depends on their ability to reengage with other humans.
Kofi Darku: 25:06 We've had a couple of guests on the show in the past several weeks where they were justice-involved and they spoke to how there was someone in their life and it's either a mother or a spouse that kind of was that voice of reason or that anchor, so to speak, that helped them realize, "yes, I had made some mistakes before but I can redeem myself by choosing a path that's going to take me to my goals now" and that sounding board helps them keep that true north to those goals and then they eventually realize this is a better life and you know, I am a spiritual person myself. They tend to acknowledge how faith helped them through that. However, I also notice that in these stories, as soon as that acknowledgement and willingness to do better according to a new set of rules, rules that they weren't necessarily following before being incarcerated, that once they started down that path their opportunities for employment became greater, and how the employment side, I hate to say it, probably was the most uplifting thing to them out of all of those things because then it sort of gave them a greater sense of agency in effecting change for their family. And so I'm taking us down this road to say, the employer stands to create a relationship that can help with recidivating or not recidivating, to use the verb accurately, where I think we don't understand how important that is. Instantly, the scripture comes to mind, you know, ",give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish, he eats for his lifetime." The job is similar to that, in terms of if you can connect the individual, that you're starting to create a new path and storyline for them, that if you can help them understand their rules, and if they continue to get resources to train themselves to, not think they're being disrespected, if their supervisor is giving them some type of guidance. True, sometimes some supervisors are bad, but you know, there are certain things they have to unlearn to be successful in this new path and as they create a new network, new friends. But I just see the job has been one of the great places to have positive role models -- other people who are doing well in their life, that could be a much better social circle, social circle for them than things that they were in prior. And so, just wanted to take that time to show the significance of a job and how employers can help be a part of this solution.
Chris Purnell: 27:54 Employment is a hugely dignifying thing, right? Like, humans, we take pride in our work and no matter what kind of work it is, we still take a great deal of pride in it. And I think that that's an element of a person's reintegration back into society, being able to say, "Hey, I work at such and such place and this is what I do."
Kofi Darku: 28:16 Yes.
Chris Purnell: 28:16 "This is what I do during the day." And you talked about having more positive role models. I think that's absolutely true. Like I'm convinced that you become like the top five people that you hang around the most. And, I think that that's true in the workplace. You're spending, you know, a third of your life inside the context of a work environment. You will most likely become a lot like them. But I think that the magic happens, you talked about the scriptures, I think a lot about where it says that you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Right? And I think that that transformation happens when, as you begin to continue to look at those people, you not only are hanging around people that are inspirational and can give you a sense of hope and a different pathway, but then you start to become that person, who can give other people inspiration and hope and a different pathway. And I think about AA where it talks about the 12 steps, right? And you go from needing to realize you have no control over your life to step 12 is, now help someone else. Step 12 is help someone else. And I think that there's a genius there that, for those who have been criminally justice-involved and have usually been told some very negative and untrue things about them, that are shaming, but that still hold a lot of power. Yeah. They still anchor themselves inside your identity... For them to be able to move forward and to establish a different identity, to establish a different trajectory, is not only heroic, but it's also something that can reach back to other people that are coming out of criminal justice and say, "Hey, listen, I've done this and it's not just because of me, but it's because of other people around me. These are relationships, employability, moving forward. Follow me, follow me." And I think there's something inspirational about that too.
Kofi Darku: 30:01 Oh yeah. Oh yeah. So, stories really help connect with our audience. And I was, I'm fortunate enough to have already gone to your website and see the spread of stories you have and Dwight's story, which I believe is the first story that you all have available on your YouTube channel, really made an impression on me and I wanted to discuss his story with you so that we could review some of the things that I think are often unknown about someone who is criminally justice-involved and, and what they're going through and how when they succeed and get past those barriers, how grateful they are and how locked-in they are, in terms of being a great employee or a great anything, simply because they feel free from the burdens that were weighing them down before. And there's a lot of power, a lot of talent in trying to harness that type of new emotion and way of channeling yourself. So quickly, I will sketch Dwight's story. He starts out by talking about how strong of an influence his mother was in his life. However, she was a single mother and he was always yearning for some type of male leadership or male presence like a father. And it often led him to do things that probably weren't the best, but he knew, you know, he knew what his mother's teaching was, even though he was sometimes going against it. Well, had this really horrible situation with his, at the time, wife, where he caught her cheating, and in his upsetness drew a weapon, a gun, and fired at both the man and the woman in an effort to scare them. He goes to jail for this. And one thing that I find is, is really powerful is as much as people can understand, when you make an offense in a state of rage, it's not excusable to do certain things. You know, there's very few things that are excusable in a state of rage other than, I mean, sometimes yelling is even wrong, but, yeah, it's interesting that as he was serving his time for this and, bring back his mom, he was very upset that he had, was in this situation. And he blamed his ex-wife for putting him there. And his mom really helped him re-see that, you know, there's a level of accountability he has to have. And that was like a breakthrough moment. However, he wasn't done with his learning. And that's why I find this to be really, really powerful, especially as we, as we talk about recidivism. Some months or years later, after he's out serving time but still on probation, he was, I guess entering into a relationship, it's -- go to the YouTUbe channel and check out the story yourself to get all the clear facts from this story, cause I'm just trying to sketch it -- but he ends up striking, slapping a woman in an argument and, and through this, of course he's committed another event. It's a violent offense, but he then also shares that, you know, well, "growing up I never really understood how to handle disputes, and I think that's all I saw in terms of like maybe being violent. But now I know that I can't and I shouldn't do that. I will never commit that offense again." However, he has this record now and this record is preventing him from taking care of his family, getting jobs, all of these things. But I find it really interesting that you have someone who went back to jail because he did not figure out how to get over. And even though there was the positive person in his life there, there's still a need for resources that really help you overcome. Maybe his mother was never going to help him learn all the things he needed to learn and hence why he was yearning for some other presence in his life. And I find it very powerful that in this story, when he talks about connecting with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, finally those resources, it became apparent to him and doors started to open for him where they were always closed before. So I go into that story to say, also it's really important for him to get a job because that was the main way that he was going to start to make right on his life. What are some things that you can add to that story that help us, further illustrate the barriers that people go through and why someone like Dwight is so important in terms of giving them a chance. And helping them get to the next chapter in their life where they're going to contribute to our society and to their families as well.
Chris Purnell: 34:51 Well, I think Dwight's story is, is just incredibly humbling for me to think about, and it's also one of those stories that doesn't have that nice, tied-up-in-a-bow, kind of linear arc as far as a narrative is concerned. Right? I think what it, what it tells me, and I think this is this is really important for us to be thinking about, is that it's not just about the criminal record, that it's about all those things that may have coalesced and eventually ended up in a criminal record, whether it's systemic injustices or behavioral health issues or anger issues or addiction or, not having any really positive role models in your life, and I think what Dwight illustrates is that things are left unaddressed, they do have a tendency to come out. They do. And, the hope would be that there would be people around him and, resources available to him that could help him in those moments where the anger does arise and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of these folks, they don't have that kind of relational capital, it's just not there. I think what's also striking about Dwight story is that, he actually listened. He listened to his mom, when she very perceptively and persistently tried to get him to see his own part in this, in this mess. What I think about that is that it's a very dignifying moment. It's a hard moment, but it's a dignifying moment because if you had a hand in creating the problem, then that means that you probably have a hand in creating the solution. And that's a powerful thing for people to hear, that you're not just locked into a particular space or locked into a particular status, but that there is some ability to move forward. Now, depending on what resources you have available to you, that's gonna look different. But there is hope. There is hope. And I think that's, that's the other thing I think about with Dwight's story. Hope is an interesting thing to quantify. And when I think about how people talk about poverty, they usually talk about it in the context of wealth and accumulation, that kind of stuff, which is true, which is true. There's, there's an element of that. But I usually think about it in terms of a dearth or a presence of hope. Does a person have hope for the future? A person could be in a state of material resource poverty, but still have a great deal of hope, you know, or a person could be in a state of material wealth and have zero hope and that's gonna have an effect on their ability to move forward to the future and their mental health. And so I think about Dwight and I think about that moment where his mom was able to speak that truth into his life and he was able to receive it, which is key. And I think that opened up new vistas of hope for him. And you're right, the story was still messy. But that's our, that's everyone's story. You know. My hope is that as Dwight continues to move forward, he won't get eaten up by guilt. What he did was terrible. I mean, and I think that's part of the tension that we all feel, right? Domestic abuse is a terrible thing and you know, we, we hope and pray for, you know, his, his partner that she's able to move forward as well. But I also think that what, again, Bryan Stevenson wrote is true. That "we are more than the worst thing that we've ever done." We are more than the worst thing we've ever done. And I believe that to my core. Now, so much of that is connected to my Christian faith. But I also think that there's just something beautifully forward-looking and hopeful about that, that we're more than that. Yeah.
Kofi Darku: 38:36 And I also found his story to be really encouraging and inspirational in terms of when he was just released and his wife was gracious enough to give him custody of their son. He... In 2006 they were in a one bedroom apartment. But through looking through resources, connecting with NCLC, by 2013 there was a house being built for him and his family that would accommodate all of them. And he knew it was because of some of the growth that he had made, he does speak to how he learned forgiveness and being accountable for what he had done himself, but then also forgiving those others. But one thing that really struck me in terms of his ability to forgive, is that he knew he was seeking forgiveness himself for committing those crimes and more over, he wanted forgiveness in a, in a way where he could go back into society and feel "himself" and feel dignified and work next to other people who weren't justice-involved, that he was looking for that level of forgiveness. But yet there, there is a long string of successful things that happened for Dwight afterwards, and I just find that... Employers, you can be on that upside of a person. You can witness that part. They've already gone through the hard part. And now based on the stats from 2015 in Indianapolis alone, you had 2,800 people released. That leads me to another phenomenon that I think we should speak to -- Brookside. And, how there are so many individuals that upon release are looking for one thing, employers. I'm sorry, I'm going to be the broken record about this -- employment. Can you speak to us about what you know and through your work with Brookside?
Chris Purnell: 40:31 So the, the clinic has a great relationship with Brookside. I'm on the board of the Brookside Community Development Corporation. And what's, what's really heartening about Brookside is that they are a church that is also a community development corporation that is attempting to address the issue of the moment in their neighborhood, which is so many folks that are returning citizens are coming back to the Brookside area. And so every Monday night they have a kind of a reentry hub service for those who are either just released from custody or have been released from custody from some time. And it's an opportunity for them. And they usually have about 80-100 people there every Monday night, which is a significant group of people. And they're getting access to the resources that the CDC has available. So they'll bring in, folks from probation and parole. They'll bring in employers, they'll bring in people like the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, just to give these folks access to resources that they may not get elsewhere or they have to travel all the way around Indianapolis to get access to. But, I think more importantly what they do, is Brookside focuses a lot on this relational model of, and so it's not just giving people access to these particular services or this particular thing, but rather it's a whole life orientation... Realizing that there's, there's a lot more bound up in a, in a person than just their particular criminal justice involvement. Okay. So let's say that you are, you have an armed robbery conviction, right? There's probably a lot more that's dangling back there that led up to that, and is leading away from that. So they want to walk with folks and they want to do it in a, in a long-term way. And so what they'll do is they'll train up what they call bridge coaches because they, they're building a bridge to returning citizens. And these bridge coaches will help connect people to resources but also just love them and walk with them and relate to them. And so I think that's a, that's a really powerful model. So yeah, Brookside is kind of a, it's kind of a, I don't know, a coalescence point for a lot of different things. They certainly have just basic generational poverty issues that are just persistent. But I think part of that is, people are going to go back to where they called home for the longest time. And so a lot of people coming back to Brookside. And so I, it heartens me to see that there's this organization that's there, that's doing some good work, that's trying to connect people to resources, that's also relating well. And it's taking the long view because it is a long view, it is a long view. There's, there's a lot of things that are a part of people that have wrestled with generational poverty, and are coming back from period of incarceration more particularly, but they're making that effort and they're making that concerted, dedicated, commitment to them.
Kofi Darku: 43:18 I learned of Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic simply because we were looking into ways that we could help, associates or people that we're trying to employ, have their records expunged. But I want to make sure our audience understands how you promote yourself. How are you found out about, through the variety of communities you're in, especially since some of the communities that you're helping are immigrant and refugee communities, which are multilingual, where their English had may not be their main or primary language? How does the services for NCLC get promoted and how do you reach the communities you serve?
Chris Purnell: 43:57 It's a lot of word of mouth. It's a lot of word of mouth. So it's a highly relational network, especially when you start talking about refugees and immigrants. It is a pretty remarkable thing how fast word travels in immigrant communities. So I think that's how most of our immigrant clients hear about us. We do some stuff on social media and our website and we have some printables and that sort of thing. But for the vast majority of our immigrant clients is through word of mouth. For our Project Grace, which Project Grace is our ex-offender re-entry work. For Project Grace, it's usually through our community partners and honestly through the prosecutor's office. So which is, which is a really interesting partnership to have. So the clinic, four days a week, we operate an expungement law help desk in the, the sub-basement of the city-county building in Marion County. And yes, the basement does have a basement so that it's, you're getting pretty far down there. Two basements. So we're in the sub-basement and, one of our staff members, Julie Mennel, who's been our help desk manager for the past four years, she will be there and will meet with people that are interested in expungement. They may think, "Gosh, is this something that's available to me? Do I even qualify? Will I ever qualify for an expungement?" And a lot of times when they're coming down, they may still have like an ankle bracelet on. And so we have to tell them, "no, you don't qualify for expungement right now, so you have to wait a little bit longer." But oftentimes they'll come down and they'll just say, "hey, I did something in my 20s. I'm 55 now, and I'm a different person, and I don't know what it is, but I can't shake the feeling that I just want this off my back." And there's something psychologically powerful, there's something about being able to actually move forward that an expungement can provide. And so she's, she's down there. We see about 3,000 people a year, down the sub-basement of city-county building of Marion County. And many of those folks are referred to us by the prosecutor's office. We have a great relationship with them. Many of them are referred to us by the courts themselves. And oftentimes they'll come because they're working with another community provider, someone who works with those who are attempting to reenter society after a period of incarceration. So they'll say, "hey, you need to go down to the help desk at the city-county building and they'll be able to help you out with that." One of the things that, that oftentimes it's interesting to just think about, is the expungement process is long. For most misdemeanors you have to wait five years. For most felonies you have to wait eight years. You can get early filing, but it really depends on the prosecutor. So that's, that's kind of a long-range effort, right? That's a long term planning effort. And for those who are in generational poverty, for those who have been told, "no you cannot" and "no, you will not move forward" and "no, you cannot thrive like the rest of the population." For them, their time horizons have been shrunk a lot of the time, where they don't think beyond next week or think beyond a month from now. For some reason, there is an element of hope that you get to someone when you tell them, "hey, for this misdemeanor it is expungeable, but you're going to have to wait another two years, or another three years." And we've had multiple people leave the help desk feeling actually excited about the prospect of being able to expunge something and they're like, "okay, three years. That gives me something to look forward to," and extends the time horizon. And it helps them to realize that, "wait, this is a future that is available to me. I just need to wait. I just need to wait." Because oftentimes I think about how I react to that and it'd be like "three years, forget this, I'm not gonna wait for that." And sometimes that happens, but for the most part, it just really extends the time horizon and kind of builds up that capacity for hope. So we love the help desk at the clinic. It's kind of the seat of a lot of the feel good stories that come through, in our expungement work. It's also the seat of a lot of the really hard stories that come through, stories of feeling oppressed, stories of being oppressed, stories of violence and hurt and shame, but also stories of hope. There's a sign that we have on the wall and the city-county building in our, our help desk area and it just says, "don't look back. You're not going that way." You're not going that way. And how many times do you know you and I need to hear that, Kofi, just throughout the course of the day? Like, "okay, that that happened and it was really bad, but I'm not going that way. I'm not going that way. I need to, to move forward. I need to take accountability for my actions, but I need to move forward." And so we want to provide people that come down to the expungement help desk, a sense of hope, a sense of a new trajectory, a sense of a new defining feature of their lives. And expungement does that.
Kofi Darku: 48:39 Expungement is very, very powerful and seems to do a lot, not only for the person who is having their record expunged, but is going to help employers tremendously when they don't see that on the record. But truthfully, Chris, can you tell us how attainable is expungement for the general population that's returning?
Chris Purnell: 48:58 Well, I'm going to do that lawyer thing that lawyers do that's really annoying and say, "it depends." I haven't done it yet. I felt like I had to throw it in there. It partly depends on, what kind of offense it is. So if it's a particularly violent offense, or if it's like there's some, some interesting stuff in the statute about, electioneering fraud and that sort of stuff. It's some really weird carve-outs, but predominantly violent offenses, sexual offenses, that sort of stuff will not be ever expungeable. For the most part. But for most felonies, drug felonies, possession of a firearm kind of felonies, that kind of stuff. You'll, your waiting period's going to be eight years. The way the statute works, I don't want to get too much in the weeds here, but the way the statute works is it divides up the different types of convictions that can be expunged between those that shall be expunged after a period of time and those that may be expunged. So there's, there's a, a higher category of those that are kind of violent and kind of just harder to work through for most people... That are in the, the judge may expunge that criminal conviction. But for most felonies, you're looking at eight years. In Marion County, the prosecutor's office has, has demonstrated that they are very willing to think through the, the prospect of early expungement, which is, which is good. And a lot of that depends on what's the person been doing since they had that criminal conviction in their life? Have they been, uh, doing things to sort of build themselves up, to "skill up, build up" if you will? Have they been doing that and how have they been doing that? Have they been a positive influence in the lives of people in their neighborhoods? And their communities? So that sort of thing. So the prosecutors often want to see that. For most misdemeanors it's going to be a five year waiting period. And again, the same thing applies. There could be early expungement but it kinda depends on what you've been doing during the time that you've been been waiting after your criminal conviction. Some counties are a little bit more, persnickety about that timeline than others. So it really just kind of depends on where you live and where the criminal conviction took place because that's where you file. If the criminal conviction happened in Marion County, you file in Marion County. If it happened in Elkhart County, then you have to file something in Elkhart County. Most of our folks that come through the help desk, they have, been busy bees, they've got stuff in various different counties in Indiana. And so we have to file something in those different counties too. But yeah, I would say that the expungement remedy is, is powerful and it is a great way to get employers take a look at you. It is attainable. Indiana has one of the more progressive expungement laws in the country.
Kofi Darku: 51:42 That's really good to know.
Chris Purnell: 51:43 I don't get to say that very often. But it's, it's, it's true. There are some states in the, in the country where you have to pay per criminal conviction that you want expunged. I think in Kentucky you have to pay $400 per conviction that you wanna expunge, that's per conviction. And that's not even taking into account attorney's fees that you might have to pay or other fines and costs, that sort of thing. So Indiana, they've really been trying to make a concerted effort, and it really has been a workforce issue. We want to try to get rid of as many barriers as possible to employment. And this is, this is one of those. I would say too that, expungement sometimes can be a little expensive for most of our low income clients if they go out in the private market, which I think is why the expansion of that help desk is such a powerful thing because yes, we had 3,000 visitors, but that also translated into, we helped 800 people file petitions for expungement during that time. That's 800 people who have access now to this powerful remedy like you talked about and whose lives will hopefully be able to take on a different trajectory because of that. And it was free of charge.
Kofi Darku: 52:52 That is... Man. I mean, each time I think you've given us a gem, you kind of outdo it with the next one. I really appreciate you making a pivot back to the workforce because, truly Indiana faces a tough challenge in that we currently have more jobs than we have people to fill the jobs. And if we continue down our very myopic, limited path in terms of who we consider for those jobs, we're never going to fill the jobs that are projected to be coming down the pike in the next five to 10 years. We're talking about nearly a million more jobs by 2025. So with that being said, it seems to me that if we have a certain number of people already here, that are capable people, how do we make sure we connect them with the resources that actually help them perform on the job for these companies that are here, that will keep our economy strong? That will keep those companies doing well? And then most importantly from my perspective, help those individuals take care of their families because they have gainful employment? We can't afford to not consider all the people that we have here. Governor Holcomb is very, very big on this in terms of let's leverage everyone we currently have here because let's keep the opportunities we have. If these companies are here and willing to hire people, let's prepare our people, all hands on deck. Get everyone ready. And so I really appreciate you helping our audience hear why this population is so worthy of being focused on, helping us understand these barriers that are very human from our point of view, but they can be overcome and we can get these people ready for these wonderful employment opportunities that are currently and are about to emerge, that they currently exist and we need to help them connect with those. Chris, if you could, if people wanted to get in touch with you to learn more about what NCLC does or some of the resources that you make available, how would they get in, get in contact with you?
Chris Purnell: 55:02 Yeah, so the, the clinic's website is www.nclegalclinic.org and I think our website does a really good job of telling some of the stories, and also giving access to how our programs function and the different types of services that we provide. I think that our, you can also call us at (317) 429-4131 and that'll also give you access to more information about how to access our services. And then the, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. And we're doing our level best to get as much information out there as possible. The legal landscape changes all the time, and so we try to do what we call an FYLI, for your legal information, every once in a while to talk mostly about... It's, it's been a lot of immigration issues, but also with regard to expungement law changes and issues related to reentering citizens. But we want to be a resource to the community and make sure that people know that they're not walking alone. That yes, we, we have resource limitations, but we want to do our level best to, to make sure that people know that we're with them and that we're walking with them. So to the extent that we can, we want do that.
Kofi Darku: 56:24 Well, NCLC, and you helping lead the efforts for them, is a tremendous resource for Indianapolis and the thousands of individuals that face these challenges when they are released from incarceration and are looking to affect their lives in a positive way. Thank you so much for being a guest on the show today, and thank you all for listening and please consider how we can help our justice-involved individuals connect with meaningful experiences, whether they be relationships or employment. That's how we skill them up and build them up.
Kofi Darku: 56:59 Well, we have another phenomenal episode for the archives. So grateful to Chris Purnell being on this show because he helped us learn a lot and he told great stories. One of the things I'm taking away that's staying at the top of my list is his mentioning of the author Matt Desmond, who wrote the book "Evicted," and he pretty much summarized that in that book, they're talking about how our communities and populations that are stuck in generational poverty, we're missing out on the talent they have because they're spending pretty much all of their day just trying to survive. All of their talent is being focused on surviving. It's almost like in the Maslow hierarchy of needs, that they are just at those bottom levels and never able to actualize. But if an employer, a gracious employer such as yourself, were to give them a job, they could start to pivot that talent to your company and to some of the bigger things in life. They don't have to just focus on surviving. And that's how important a job is. And that's the significance of what the employers play a role in right now. Another great takeaway is that through the Grace Project, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic sees roughly 3,000 people a year. That's phenomenal, because I don't think they have that large of a staff. But along with seeing those 3,000 people, in one year, they were able to help 800 people expunge their records. I mean, seriously, it's a huge accomplishment for that individual to not have that on their record anymore. And obviously it does wonders for their job careers. So more employers can give them a look and not have concerns because they have a background or a record. And lastly, I think it was the first time ever happening on the Skill Up Build Up podcast, our guest used "skill up, build up" in a sentence. I mean, that's phenomenal! If we could get more people just using "skill up, build up" in a sentence, we will have done something great. Please continue to check out the Skill Up Build Up podcast wherever you get podcasts, and let's continue the conversation.