Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories The Pantagraph will publish on the challenges facing people after their release from prison, including issues in housing and employment, and re-entry efforts at the state and federal levels.
BLOOMINGTON — At 19, Kristen Braffet didn’t grasp the long-term consequences of a felony conviction.
She quickly learned that probation was the easy part of living with a record that would impede her ability to vote, work and even volunteer at her children’s school.
The mistake that put Braffet, now 30, in the felon category related to her use of a friends's debit card to settle a debt. Coming on the heels of a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction a year earlier, the debit card case was a felony.
Going to court and being forced to tell people about her arrest was a much-needed wake-up call, said Braffet, who now lives in Kentucky.
“At the time, it was just what I needed. I had a problem with theft. But now that I've learned my lesson, it's time to let me move on,” she said.
The immediate impact of the conviction came with Braffet’s firing from her house cleaning job. “From that time on, it was denial after denial,” she said of her job search.
With help from Project Oz, a Bloomington agency that helps homeless and at-risk youth, Braffet landed a job with the Bloomington District 87's food services department.
“For six years I was a lunch lady. Getting that job was huge. I was feeling really depressed and just really lost,” said Braffet.
Subsequent jobs came through connections: “Everything was based on who I knew.”
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When she finishes her degree in paralegal studies, Braffet hopes to go to law school.
“This shadow of a felony haunts me. I’m serving a life sentence that continues every single day,” she said.
Braffet was in the Twin Cities recently to start the process of having her criminal record sealed and of filing a petition for clemency with Gov. Bruce Rauner. The request to seal her felony records starts with the Prisoner Review Board.
Some offenses are not eligible for sealing, including drunken driving, sex offenses, crimes of violence and domestic violence-related convictions. A person must wait five years from the end of a sentence, or their last arrest before filing a petition.
A successful petition allows a person to have his or her criminal record expunged.
Defendants who agree to plead guilty to a charge are now informed by a judge of the potential consequences of such a decision. A new law, effective Jan. 1, requires judges to inform defendants that their plea could make it difficult to obtain housing, a job and other privileges.
Defense lawyer Josh Rinker said the information in the judge’s statement should be covered in discussions between defendants and their lawyers before the plea is finalized.
“Requiring the court to address these warnings on the record ensures that even if it was forgotten by the defense attorney, the defendant is entering into a decision fully aware of the consequences," said Rinker.
The statement that includes a potential requirement to register with authorities — a mandate for sex offenders, for example — causes confusion and concern for some defendants, said Rinker.
"Much of the confusion can be avoided by spending a few extra minutes explaining these warning to the client, but even then the concerns can still linger," said Rinker.