I wrote a radio version of the following story for a new collaboration between the Eagle and KMUW that aired on January 19 and 20 and can be found online here.
January 17, 2017 “Adjusting to freedom after 28 years in prison”
Last month, Richard Reser, 71, ate steak at a local diner in Topeka, just because he felt like it. He had just been released after serving 28 years in prison. Eating steak was what he always imagined freedom would be like.
Reser was supposed to spend 12 more years in prison. But he is one of the more than 1,300 inmates whose sentences have been commuted by President Obama, more commutations than the past 11 presidents combined.
Because of his poor health, Reser spends most of his day confined to a room that doubles as a living room and kitchen, watching TV. Reser still wakes up at 6 a.m. and falls asleep at 9 p.m., the same time he did in prison. “Habit, I guess,” he said.
His fridge has eggs and bacon, his freezer hamburger and hotdogs, and his cupboard beans and macaroni – it’s a bounty of food he could never have kept in prison. The guards used to rifle through his things and order him to throw out whatever extra knickknacks they thought were too much. “They can’t do that no more,” Reser said. “What I have now is mine.”
Soon after he was released, his breathing got so bad he had to have surgery to install a pacemaker. But on Christmas Day, his first full day of freedom at home, Reser sat on his couch alone.
His mother and father died while he was in prison. Both his brothers died. His son had died a few years earlier, in Seattle. And now his daughter is in prison, too.
He briefly called to wish happy holidays to his ex-wife, a childhood friend and his nephew down the street. And then he went back to watching TV. During his last eight years of prison in Arkansas, he didn’t have a single visitor, he said.
And, except for a friend who helped him buy furniture, he hasn’t had a visitor in his new home.
He pulled a blanket out of his closet on Christmas, lay down on his couch – much softer than anything he’d slept on for decades – and went to sleep.
Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/news/local/crime/article126944634.html#storylink=cpy
December 19, 2015
“Koch Industries paves bipartisan path to prison and justice reform”
BY OLIVER MORRISON
At the end of a presentation on criminal justice reform at a recent Big Brothers Big Sisters event in Wichita, a woman stood up and asked Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, “How will these laws benefit Koch?” according to Holden.
“And I go, ‘What do you mean? We don’t have any criminal cases, knock on wood,’ ” Holden said.
The woman pressed him about pollution cases. “I said, ‘Look, it’s not going to benefit us in any way, really, this is not about us,’ ” Holden told her. “‘We can afford the best lawyers. We’ll always be OK. This isn’t about us at all.’ ”
For more than a year Holden has been hitting the same message: the criminal justice system needs reform and the ones who most need it are the poor.
Holden has been traveling across the country for Koch Industries the past year, speaking at forums, meeting with elected officials and advocating for sweeping criminal justice reform. His work has caught the attention of the Washington establishment because of “the strange bedfellows” he has made, partnering with politicians and organizations from all political persuasions, some of which once considered him a political adversary.
Now many of those same insiders say Holden’s work has pushed forward legislation that had languished for decades. Holden was named, along with his boss, Charles Koch, as the sixth most transformative person in politics in 2015 by Politico, just after presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis.
“I never expected that I would be on ‘Morning Joe’ or ‘Anderson Cooper’ or going to the White House,” Holden said….Continue readingVideo produced by John Albert
February 2, 2017 “How unpaid tickets trap some in cycle of court trips, poverty”
Larry Merriweather runs a small business from Wichita in which he strips and waxes the floors of stores across Kansas.
In 2008, when the recession hit, he said his income fell from $63,000 to $21,000 in one year. As a result, he couldn’t pay a speeding ticket, and his license was suspended.
He couldn’t stop working, so he said every time he got pulled over, he would get additional fines and penalties, including having to pay bail when he was jailed for driving on a suspended license. He’s never had a DUI and hasn’t been in any accidents, he said.
Merriweather said he now owes about $8,000 in back fines.
“How can I make a living if I can’t get to my job?” Merriweather said. “I’m being treated like a criminal, and my crime is driving to work.”…Continue reading
“Two former Kansas prisoners try to make up for lost time”
BY OLIVER MORRISON
Peter Ninemire said he was a rebellious Kansas farm kid but that he lost control when his dad passed away when he was in his early 20s. “The reins came off of the wild horse,” Ninemire said.
He was caught growing marijuana and faced 24.5 years in prison, which became 27 years. His first night in federal prison in 1991, he said, the man in the cell next to him hanged himself with his sheets.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” Ninemire said. “I thought, ‘Wow this is not going to be fun, this is going to be a journey.’ ” …Continue readingVideo produced by Oliver Morrison and John Albert
BY OLIVER MORRISON
When Robert Moody, one of the lead organizers for Clean Slate Day, showed up at the Sedgwick County Courthouse at 7:30 a.m. on March 4, he thought there might be a few people waiting. He did not expect hundreds.
Clean Slate Day was organized to – in one day, for free – process applications to clear people’s criminal records. The process usually takes two months and can cost hundreds of dollars.
By 7:30 a.m., the jury room was already filled and there was a line stretching into the foyer of the courthouse.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Moody said. “Typically, they don’t even open (the court) until 7:30 a.m.”
Some people had started lining up as early as 6 a.m.
The organizers with the Wichita Bar Association had expected 300 or 400 people, according to Kellie Hogan, another organizer, but more than 1,000 showed up. After they passed out 900 tickets, she stood at the back and did “crowd control,” handing out information sheets to hundreds more people about how they could get their records expunged.
They did not have the time or resources to help everyone. They processed around 150 records that day for about 100 people – some had multiple crimes expunged. That’s about half of the amount typically processed in a year, the organizers said. But hundreds of people who stayed until 5 p.m. left before they could be helped.
“It’s been reported that we didn’t have any funds, but we actually just ran out of time,” Moody said.
There’s still around $50,000 of $65,000 available to pay for the expungements. The big hold-up was the time it took to do background checks to make sure people were eligible. A few of the crimes were so old, dating back to the ’70s and ’80s, Hogan said, that the volunteers from the district attorney’s office had to look for court records on microfiche. That took extra time.
The lawyers took down the information of everyone who remained until the end of the day and promised to continue helping them. Moody said he had been working on the weekend and Hogan said on Tuesday that she had just processed a few more that day.
“Some people kind of likened it to Black Friday,” Hogan said. “It was worth getting up and waiting in line to get a free expungement, like it is to get a discount computer. But we’re continuing to process the people, just not on a big scale, on a big day.”
Hogan estimated about a third of the people who showed up were not eligible, because the crime took place elsewhere, not enough time had passed, the crime wasn’t eligible or, in some cases, they hadn’t paid all of their other court fines. But even those people learned about the expungement process and how they might, in the future, be able to get their records cleaned.
Around 60 volunteers helped. One copy machine had been donated. They could have used two, Hogan said.
But they learned lessons for next time. If they get people’s names ahead of time, the district attorneys could begin the background checks ahead of time.
They also learned about some unfair legal practices that could be put on their legislative agenda for the future: For instance, people who have received a not-guilty verdict on crimes still have to apply for an expungement. They also found that in some random years, a DUI infraction could be expunged and in other years it couldn’t.
Lawyers who are volunteering their time are still processing a backlog of hundreds more expungement applications. But in the future, if they could find enough funding, volunteer lawyers could staff an expungement clinic, Hogan said.
Even though there was a long wait and many didn’t get served, people were polite and appreciative, Hogan said. They talked about how clearing their criminal records could help them get better jobs, secure better housing and get off to a fresh start, she said.
“I saw a woman come through the courtroom who had got her expungement done,” Hogan said. “She held it up, and the crowd cheered.”
BY OLIVER MORRISON
Victor Balderas, the first in his family to earn a college degree, sat in the back of a presentation about how to get his criminal record erased on Tuesday.
“I did nothing wrong at all,” Balderas told the two lawyers. “Is there any chance of getting (my record) erased?”
Balderas, like the 25 to 30 others at the Evergreen branch of the Wichita library, didn’t want to keep telling potential employers about his arrest many years ago. Balderas wasn’t convicted, he said, but when he applied for a job with the federal government, his arrest became a problem.
The Wichita Bar Association is organizing an event on March 4 called Clean Slate Day. On that day, lawyers and volunteers will try to help people who qualify wipe their records clean.
Usually, the process requires hiring an attorney, waiting six to eight weeks and paying a court fee that is $195 in the county and was just raised to $90 in the city.
Clean Slate Day will speed up the process so it all happens on the same day, and it will be free for many in the community for whom the fee is prohibitive. Defense lawyers are donating their time, Volunteer Kansas is providing additional support, and Colby Sandlian, a local real estate agent, has chipped in to pay the fees.
Sandlian attended a presentation about criminal justice reform by Koch Industries in September. He thought then that someone should help low-level offenders get their records clean. At the event, Sandlian met Robert Moody, who was on a committee to make Clean Slate Day a part of the Wichita Bar Association’s 100th anniversary. Sandlian made a $10,000 commitment that put the event in motion.
That money will cover a lot of fees but not an unlimited amount, so two bar association members, Moody and Kellie Hogan, were explaining who qualified to those at Evergreen on Tuesday. This was the second of four events planned around Wichita in the lead up to March 4.
“You will go see a judge that day and leave the courthouse that day, and it will cost no money,” Moody told the crowd.
“All right, all right,” the crowd responded enthusiastically.
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Moody said. “We’ve never tried it before.”….Continue Reading