What image comes to mind when you think of a criminal? Is it a shady figure lurking in the shadows? Is it a white woman tatted up from head to toe? A black male in a hoodie? Truthfully, it may be all three, but it could also be a white male in a fine tailored suit or a bright public figure fixed in the limelight. Too many of us primarily think of the former image and label those individuals as deviant—which is why we must change the way we think about criminality. People commit crimes for a variety of reasons; however, I believe three main factors can be cited as underlying causes for the commission of most crimes: mental health issues and drug/alcohol addiction, interpersonal conflict, and lack of economic resources. Think about the last one for a second. What would you do to survive if you had a small family to care for, but have been locked out of every door that leads to economic success? What if you couldn’t secure public housing, food stamps, TANF? In that scenario, selling drugs might not seem so evil. Perhaps, it could be a way to pick that lock and provide for your family.
Now, it is not my point to justify drug dealing or to endorse the underground economy. Not at all. My goal is to get us to think deeper about the circumstances surrounding the individual who committed the crime. Why? Because if we understand their circumstances, we can understand the mindset, and if we understand the mindset we may empathize with the person, and if we empathize with the person we may no longer generally label the person deviant, but as a human being who made bad choices.
Working for the Clinic and interacting with Project GRACE Clients has helped change the way I think about criminality. Speaking with clients and listening to their stories about how they obtained a criminal record has fostered this change. Whether it was due to a particular rough patch in their lives, if they were caught up in “The Streets”, or just young and…well you know the rest, most clients have some compelling underlying circumstances that impacted the choices they made.
I am glad the Clinic had the vision to implement a plan of action to help ex-offenders, and that the Clinic has put me in a position to do something to improve our client’s life circumstances by sealing criminal records. Sealing criminal records helps strengthen economic opportunities, restore family connections, and remove the stigma of the “criminal” label. Ultimately, and most importantly, I am grateful for the opportunity to be an instrument which God has used to help spread awareness about these issues and to be a part of the process of restoring hope in our client’s lives. Now, tell me what image comes to mind when you think of a criminal?
Carlton Martin graduated from Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 2012, was barred in September 2013 and was hired as the Project GRACE staff attorney in August 2013. Project GRACE, Guided Re-entry and Community Education, is the Clinic's ex-offender re-entry program which began in 2010. For more information about our Project GRACE program and how to volunteer for Project GRACE please email Volunteer Coordinator Erin: email@example.com