Ever question what kind of impact a long-past drug conviction can have on a person’s future? Ask Corey Sanders and Jason Sarasnick.
On the surface, the two men appear to have little in common. Sanders, who is African-American, runs a barbershop in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Sarasnick, who is white, owns a hardware store about 45 minutes away in suburban Bridgeville Borough. Sanders is a Democrat, Sarasnick a Republican.
What the two men do share, however, is a past that includes a conviction for attempting to distribute a controlled substance. They also share this—both men have been removed from positions as government officials, based on a Pennsylvania state law that forbids convicted felons from elected office.
In February, a “citizen’s complaint” was presented to the Alleghany district attorney, informing the office of Sanders’ conviction in 1992. Despite having served over five years in prison for the crime (not to mention six additional months in a halfway house, and then another nine years parole), he was denied the opportunity to take his seat on the McKeesport city council because the state constitution disqualifies those with an “infamous crime” on their record.
“Too many people think that once you’re in the system, you’re a recycling bin,” Sanders tells Reason.com. You’re always going to be in the system. Ignorant people feel as though you went away, there’s no way you deserve a second chance. But they only feel like that until it happens to them. Until it comes home.”
News of Sanders’ situation spread west to Bridgeville. Soon, a similar “citizen’s complaint” was received at the local district attorney’s office, announcing the previous conviction of Sarasnick, who had been serving on the Bridgeville borough council since 2008. He was forced to resign his seat as a result of a similar drug offense from the early 1990s.
Both Sanders and Sarasnick have become successful businessmen and fathers since completing their sentences. Both have spent time counseling young people in their communities against the kind of mistakes that ultimately cost them their elected offices.
For his part, Sanders is hoping to receive a pardon from the governor that will allow him to return to his seat on council, but he is hoping lawmakers will take a closer look at the “infamous act” clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution so that future men and women with criminal records aren’t denied similar opportunities.
“People are looking at this law now,” he says, “so it’s not going to just end with Corey Sanders, it’s going to help people, black and white, coming out of prison.”
The “infamous act” provision is but one of a myriad of obstacles that people with a criminal past face when attempting to make a new life for themselves. Even as they seek to contribute positively to their communities, as Sanders and Sarasnick clearly have, laws and restrictions keep them from being the citizens and neighbors they want to be.
The Second Prison Project works to unlock second chances for those who have paid their debt to society. By removing hurdles and promoting opportunities for these men and women, this “second prison” is removed, and they are enabled to give back at their greatest potential.
To learn more about the Second Prison Project, visit SecondPrison.org.