Education program ends revolving door for some ex-cons (VIDEO)

Harlem, New York — At just 21 years old, Brandon Johnson’s life is already at a crossroads.

His life changed some four years ago as a senior in high school. He was charged with gang assault and robbery — a crime he says he witnessed but had no involvement in.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from,” Johnson said. “If you just happen to be in the wrong place, it could happen to you.”

After he graduated from high school in 2008, the felony charge cost Brandon his job as an early childhood-care worker at Harlem’s Children Zone.

WATCH BRANDON JOHNSON’S STORY HERE, AS AIRED ON MSNBC:

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And in December 2010, his conviction led to other potential employers to follow suit.

”[Employers] look at your resume and they go, ‘alright well’ and then they look at a background check and it’s like, [that becomes who you are to society],” Johnson said. ”[Employers say] this is who you are and you’re cut short.”

The United States has an estimated 14 million ex-offenders of working age whose job prospects are considerably lower than those without records.

Those slim odds led Brandon to a New York City based program to help those somehow involved in the criminal justice system.

The program, College Initiative, is a chance to make higher education, and eventually, employment, a reality for people like Brandon.

“I think that for our population, in particular, they’ve made the step to say, ‘I’m ready to overcome,’” said Nicole White, who runs College Initiative’s mentor program. “And that’s really I think how are students have a good chance of succeeding.”

David Gaskin is proof. He served nine and a half years on manslaughter and weapon charges, earned his GED in prison and came to College Initiative looking for a new start.

“I’m in school [now],” said Gaskin, who attends New York City College of Technology. “I know now that for me to advance in life, I need to further my education.”

But programs like College Initiative aren’t the norm.

American now has 7.3 million adults under some type of correctional supervision at a cost of more than 50 billion dollars to state governments.

Only a small fraction of that money is spent on program to help ex-offenders transition back into society.

“Recidivism rates have remained high 60s [percent]…for the last 30 years, 40 years,” said Keesha Middlemass, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. “If [Americans] were really serious about their tax dollars, it’s cheaper to rehab and support programs and think about second chances and opportunities [for ex-offenders] then it is to send them back in to the system.”

Middlemass is working on a book-length manuscript on how public policies prevent individuals from overcoming their felony convictions.

”[The felony convictions] are used to deny voting rights, public housing, licensing for certain jobs and a variety of other things,” Middlemass said. “Public policies need to change…or the recidivism rates won’t change.”

Brandon Johnson, who’s awaiting sentencing for his case, isn’t wasting any time moving beyond his record.

When asked where he will be this time next year, he pauses for a second.

“Possibility getting out of one of my sciences classes, hopefully,” he laughs. “Or on my way to lunch.”

Johnson says a college degree may not change everyone’s perception of who he is — but it’s a start.

Follow theGrio’s Todd Johnson on Twitter at @rantoddj

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