An old South Los Angeles movie theater turned into a pop-up art show this weekend with works of art by big name contemporary artists like Shepard Fairey and Swoon. But there was something unusual and maybe even extraordinary at the gallery: an area blocked off exclusively for people convicted of felonies.
The pop-up art show, called “Manifest Justice,” was centered around the theme of justice. The show included 275 pieces of politically minded artists, including one piece that made use of a police car brought in from Ferguson, Missouri.
The organizers also hosted a one-day event where people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies could meet with volunteer attorneys and start a process to reclassify their felonies to misdemeanors. The reclassification process is now possible because last November California voters approved a ballot measure that allows drug possession and minor theft convictions to be downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors.
Artists championed the historic measure known as Proposition 47 way before Election Day, and now they’re working to make sure the people who need the reclassifications know about the process and have access to it. The “record change fair” was a result of a partnership with the gallery organizers and Californians for Safety and Justice, a statewide criminal justice reform nonprofit group.
Clearing criminal records of felonies can change people's lives from one day to the next. Advocates count 4,800 penalties in California for people that have a criminal record and have already served their time.
“To be untethered from the status of felon in today’s society is a kind of freedom,” writer and filmmaker dream hampton told Fusion at Saturday’s event.
The restrictions for people with felony convictions range from barriers to housing, jobs, voting and public assistance programs, including federal Pell Grants for college.
“Once you check that box [that asks if you have a felony conviction] you know you’re just giving your pen an exercise because you’re not going to get past the HR department,” said hampton, whose agency Revolve Impact worked to help pass Proposition 47.
“There’s no way to reintegrate into society—that’s why recidivism is so high—if you have no opportunities for employment,” hampton said.
Proposition 47 turned six crimes in California from felonies to misdemeanors. If the crime was valued under $950, petty theft, forgery, shoplifting, writing a bad check and receiving stolen property are now considered misdemeanors. Simple drug possession is also now considered a misdemeanor.
“I basically had given up looking for a 40-hour work week job,” said Charsleen Poe-Knox, 55, who attended the gallery on Saturday.
She said she’s only been able to get domestic work cleaning people’s homes, doing laundry or cleaning yards in the neighborhood because no one will hire her for a full time job.
“If you go apply for a job at a place that’s serves food they’ll accept your application over the counter and they’ll look at your application and won’t even hold a conversation with you,” Poe-Knox told Fusion.
Poe-Knox has four felony convictions on her record for possession of crack cocaine. All four of her felony convictions are eligible for reclassification, and she’ll meet with an attorney Wednesday to follow up on the process.
“Seven years clean and there’s no turning back,” said Poe-Knox who says she wants to work until she’s 70.
She says if her convictions are reclassified she’s going to enroll in a 9-month paralegal training program and also apply to become a foster care parent for her grandson, whose mother passed away.
Criminal record checks are required for all members of prospective foster parents’ households in California, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont.
Proposition 47 intended to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and help relieve California’s overcrowded prisons. The money saved as a result of incarcerating fewer people would go into a fund that distributes money to schools, a victim's compensation fund, and to drug rehabilitation programs.
There was one exhibit at the gallery that got right to the heart of how well the criminal justice system is funded compared to public schools.
California spends $62,300 a year to keep one inmate in prison, and just $9,100 per year per public school student, according to the California Budget Project, a California think tank that studies fiscal policies.
“We afford artists the ability and freedom to challenge us by taking really complex ideas and to put them into potent and powerful brush strokes, lyrics or dance moves,” said Yosi Sergant, who organized the show “Manifest Justice.”
In August 2014 the rapper Jay Z took the opportunity to tell his fans at sold-out concert to support Proposition 47.
"Build more schools, less prisons," Jay Z told some 95,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Sergant said he organized the show centered around justice because “society allows artists to challenge us in a way that we don’t really allow others to do.”