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You are bigger than your worst mistake

Former Prisoner

If Maya Angelou died at age 20, she would’ve died a prostitute and single mom. If Malcom X died at age 20, he would have died as Detroit Red—a woman beater and drug addict. If Robert Downey Jr. died at age 37, he would have died a repeat offender and an addict.

I argue that you are bigger than your worst mistake in life and your current circumstances. Nothing stays the same; things either get better, or they get worse, but nothing stays the same.

This includes those that hit rock bottom.

As Bryan Stevenson said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I would like to think that is true. However, this is only true if we as individuals are not anchored down perpetually to our worst moment in life and allowed to grow so that we can reach our full potential.

When someone’s life gets cut short you are taking away the “what if” and robbing them of all future potential.

Which brings me to George Floyd. This man’s “what if” was taken from him, and we will never know what he could have potentially lived up to be. His death should not have happened. Even if he was trying to pass off a fake $20 dollar bill, he should not have been killed over it.

After his death, people wanted to know who George Floyd was and, in doing so, his record came up. Once his criminal record came to light, it was used as a weapon to dehumanize him—and even as a justification for his murder.

Now, I acknowledge that what he did was wrong. I acknowledge that he wasn’t a saint. But to cast him aside entirely over his past when he had five years without recidivating up until his death is wrong.

I can’t help but think that the people who are undercutting his death and excusing police brutality would do the same to me because I was convicted of a violent felony. I know that I wasn’t a saint, and I have my fair share of dirty deeds for which I am still seeking redemption from to this day. But, does that mean you will undermine my death if I am killed by police?

Five years after my release, I had just gotten off of my 5-year felony probation but had only “accomplished” 3 AA degrees from Ohlone College and zero probation violations. I was still working on my bachelor’s degree, hadn’t earned valedictorian status, and I wasn’t accepted into law school yet.

If my life had been cut short just 2 years ago, how would you and the media portray me?

How much “good” does one have to do to truly clear their past and shed, what sociologist Erving Goffman, would call, their “master status” of ex-con and replace it with anything else. What does it take?

Is it getting a few degrees and becoming a lawyer? Is it owning your own business? How many accolades and accomplishments does it take for that narrative to start to shift and for people to start saying, “Well, you’re not like them” and “you’re different.” When the reality is I am “them,” and I am not different. The only thing that separates someone like me from someone fresh out of jail is time.

But what about the people who don’t chase the degrees and awards? What about the men and women who want a low-key life and want to perfect a trade so they can support themselves and their family? I am no better and no worse than any one of them. Why can’t that master status shift for them as well? They too have succeeded in both life and rejoining society by not recidivating.

It is statistically proven that after 5 years without re-offending, the recidivism rates are extraordinarily low for a formerly incarcerated person. Shouldn’t that be the benchmark then for society to exchange the master status ascribed to that person from “ex-convict” to “regular citizen” or some other current attribute they may have? If not, what should that benchmark be?

This question must be asked and answered because far too often, people’s records are weaponized against them regardless of how long ago their offense was and what their current situation is. 

Until we as a society stop branding formerly incarcerated people with this scarlet letter, the formerly incarcerated community will never truly be free.

Antonio Reza Antonio Reza is a first year law student at Santa Clara University School of Law, the first student president and an executive board member of the National Justice Impacted Bar Association and an executive board member of the California System Involved Bar Association. He is external vice president of the La Raza Law Student Association and vice president of external affairs for the Student Bar Association.