Springfield, Illinois ~ After spending nearly two years in prison for a felony drug conviction at age 22, Marcella Kincaid set out to rebuild her life thinking she had paid her debt to society in full.
Little did she know the lingering impact that one bad decision – selling cocaine in a moment of weakness – would have on achieving gainful employment for the next 25 years.
The number of times she would go on an interview without a call-back was staggering.
“It felt like a conviction again every time you apply,” Kincaid said. “It took a lot. It took the spiritual part and mental part of me to even face some of the things I had to face.
“I ran into roadblocks, but it didn’t stop me,” she added. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Kincaid’s story highlights the experiences of many nonviolent and first-time offenders in the criminal justice system, and underscores a lingering question of whether current laws dictating punishment do more harm than good.
“Most people do not receive the treatment and support they need while incarcerated,” said Cesraea Rumpf, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Criminal Justice at Benedictine. “Additionally, incarceration is a harmful experience that creates further disadvantages for people. As a result, people who enter prison with issues related to drug use often still struggle with those issues upon release. Plus, they face the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, such as being deemed ineligible for a variety of public assistance programs and being discriminated against in employment.”
After being turned down for a social worker position in 2015, Kincaid, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Benedictine University in 2009, finally had enough.
“I got all the way through the interview and had been accepted when my record came back,” she said. “It was like reliving the same events over again for 20-some years.”
At the beginning of 2016, she decided to file for clemency of her criminal record.
A few months later, her request was granted by Gov. Bruce Rauner. But the clemency process still required she file a petition detailing the circumstances of her past conviction and background history, explaining how her life has changed, and then attend a hearing in front of the 14-person Illinois Prison Review Board.
She received word that her record was expunged on April 6.
“They denied 230 people and I happened to be one of the five they approved,” she said. “I’m excited. Finally, I feel good about this. It’s finally real. There’s nothing on this person’s record.”
Kincaid said she never felt defined by her past.
“Everything I have wanted to do, I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve learned through constant prayer and meditation that it’s something I did, it’s in my past and I’m going to leave it there.
“I do take full responsibility and I learned to practice what I preach,” Kincaid added. “If you’re not helping the community, then you’re part of the problem. You can let your past continue to hinder you from growing, or you can move forward.”
Applying this credo to her life, Kincaid enrolled at Benedictine’s Springfield campus in 2007 to continue her education as an adult learner.
“When I visited Benedictine, I was astonished at the class sizes and professors’ love for the students, as well as their willingness to teach students who struggle with certain subjects,” she said.
“It worked out perfectly and I did not feel bad about my age because I was with people my age,” she added. “It suited my needs. I needed those (evening) hours and it was perfect for the direction I was headed.”
Kincaid credits the Psychology program at Benedictine for helping her find stability in her life.
“It was a healing experience,” she said. “I was grasping for an explanation for why things happened to me in my Psychology classes. My mindset began to change, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and I started working toward improving my life. I knew from that point on I wanted to help people heal.”
The encouragement she received from her professors further inspired her to pursue and earn a master’s degree.
“The support was great,” Kincaid said. “It was even more rewarding after I explained to them the road it took me to get where I am.”
Today, Kincaid is an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services caseworker at Catholic Charities and the owner of Glorified Styles hair salon. She is also a volunteer along with her children and husband, Darren, for Fresh Visions Community Church in Springfield where they help feed the homeless and give to those in need.
She views the expungement of her record as largely symbolic, having come so late in her adult life.
“When they gave me that piece of paper, it didn’t change how I already felt,” she said. “I’ve had constant and consistent joy. I learned that you can be a testimony to others who are struggling. What I learned from Benedictine was, if you stay on track, you will succeed.”
Kincaid’s personal story is reflective of a larger societal issue, scholars argue.
Communities of color are over-policed, Rumpf said.
“In general, people of color are charged with more serious offenses than whites,” Rumpf said. “People of color are more likely to be detained pretrial, which increases the likelihood of conviction and receiving a prison sentence. People of color also receive harsher sentences than whites. All of these factors contribute to the overrepresentation of people of color in our prison system today.”
People of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The Bureau of Justice Statistics lists three quarters of drug offenders as either African-American or Hispanic.
“There are many explanations for the overrepresentation of people of color in prisons, all of which are rooted in structural racism,” Rumpf said. “When looking specifically at the criminal legal system today for an explanation, this overrepresentation is the cumulative impact of racial inequity at each stage of the system.”
These topics have been the focus of several events and discussions that have taken place on campus over the years, such as the recent Social Justice Teach-In focusing on race, immigration and community policing, which help students become more well-rounded and knowledgeable of various issues affecting the local community.
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 9,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the sixth consecutive year in 2016. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.