It’s May 1991.
Five police cars with lights flashing were parked in the driveway as a white Nissan Sentra pulled in behind them; four kids taking up the extra seats.
There stood a black man with his hands cuffed behind his back while officers pulled everything from the home; what looked to be a rented flute used to play in the Elementary school band, an old desktop computer, and a turquoise Jansport backpack.
As they pushed the black man’s head down to be placed in the back of the car his eyes caught those of his daughter’s, and shame washed over his face.
I was nine years old and that man was my father.
He was being arrested for possession of marijuana.
I see this picture, this one moment in the life I had with him often.
It shaped much of who I am today and how I view the world.
To be honest, when states started to legalize marijuana, I wasn’t for it. I watched the felony conviction of my father limit his ability to participate in what so many of us take for granted, getting a decent job, renting a home, even decades later trying to own a rifle to hunt, hell, even running for office if he wanted to.
My family was eventually ripped apart partially due to that prison sentence and conviction. My parents divorced a few years later but that conviction followed him for the rest of his life.
In 2013, My husband, Daren, and I, had a long conversation about legalization. One of those conversations that was full of emotion – tears, anger, and in the end, thoughtful reflection.
I couldn’t see how something that had effectively ruined my family could be good for anyone.
In that conversation with Daren, he helped me to realize was that it wasn’t the possession of marijuana that was bad or the use thereof, but the systems in place that ensured that my father, a black man, was fined and jailed.
The laws that disportionately target people like my father, despite equal rates of usage is what is wrong.
Black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites and those statistics are from 20 years after my father’s arrest. So I can only surmise that in 1991 the rates were higher than 2001 or 2011.
This brings us to today.
Last July, I wrote a piece for the Pittsburgh Current about what I felt would be a viable path for legalization in Pennsylvania that also ensured that we properly invested the revenue into programs that made us stronger as a commonwealth.
It was what I campaigned on for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
And as the first candidate in that race to call for legalization, I took a different approach than others who came after me.
It isn’t just about the economics, but it’s about people’s lives. It’s about ensuring those like my dad who were charged with a felony could after legalization be a fully functioning member of society again.
So as politicians go on “listening tours” and bring forth bills, I sincerely hope they take a couple of simple, yet powerful steps.
- Review criminal convictions for marijuana charges and expunge the records of individuals who are serving and or served time for possession of marijuana.
- As small businesses are granted licenses to sell marijuana that preference is given to applicants of color.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s decision to appoint Brandon Flood, 36, of Steelton, Dauphin County, as the new secretary of the Board of Pardons has made me incredibly hopeful.
I’ve gotten to know Flood, and I know him to be a true champion for criminal justice reform — whether it was his work as a legislative aid or his work with the NAACP. The nine years he served in prison on drug- and gun- related charges adds a perspective to the board that I have long championed.
There are still barriers in place for people to seek pardons and record expungement. Flood has spoken openly about the roughly $1,500 it cost him to get his own record expunged. The recent decision to eliminate the $63 application fee is a step in the right direction.
I believe Flood has the insight and pragmatism as someone to reflect and ensure that people like him and my father are given the second chance they’ve earned.
Aryanna Berringer, of Westmoreland County, is an author, and a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Her work appears monthly on The Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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