People With Criminal Records React to Trump Verdict: ‘Now You Understand’

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Some Democratic leaders are eager to make former President Donald J. Trump’s new identity as a convicted criminal central to their pitch to voters on why he is unfit for office. At the same time, there has been a movement on the left for years to end the stigma of criminal records and point out grave issues in the country’s legal system.

That is why in the wake of the news last week that a New York jury had found Mr. Trump guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, there were especially complex and personal reactions among the millions of Americans who have also been convicted of felonies.

They debated whether the former president’s convictions made him one of them or only underscored how unlike them he was, and discussed their mixed feelings over hearing an entire country discuss the ramifications of having a rap sheet.

“He’s convicted, so now he’s in our community,” said Rahim Buford, 53, who also has a felony conviction on his record.

Mr. Buford believes that neither Democrats nor Republicans have done enough to address significant parts of America’s criminal justice system that are broken, including wrongful convictions, racial disparities and a rate of imprisonment that far outstrips that of other industrialized nations.

So he wondered if sharing a label with the leader of the Republican Party might not, in some way, help his cause.

Will he go to prison? I doubt it. Will it change his lifestyle? I doubt it,” said Mr. Buford, who founded the organization Unheard Voices Outreach for the formerly incarcerated in Nashville. “But what I know it will do is give him — he’s already had — an experience that he can never forget. Because once you go through the criminal legal system and you’re put on trial, that’s traumatizing.”

He added: “Now you understand, at least a little bit, what it feels like.”

For Dawn Harrington, who served time on Rikers Island in New York and now directs an organization called Free Hearts for families affected by incarceration in Tennessee, watching the news coverage of Mr. Trump’s criminal conviction last week was upsetting.

She heard liberals rejoice that he was now a “convicted felon,” a term she and others have tried to persuade people not to use.

Ms. Harrington said she did time for gun possession after traveling to New York with a handgun that was registered in Tennessee. She is from a part of Nashville that has a high level of incarceration, she said, and her brother had also gone to prison.

After the Trump verdict, she also heard President Biden defend the justice system as a “cornerstone of America” that has endured for “nearly 250 years” — back to a time, Ms. Harrington noted, when slavery was legal.

The rhetoric, she thought, was “quite frankly dehumanizing to the base that we organize with,” she said.

At the same time, Ms. Harrington said, a group chat she is on erupted into a conversation about what it was like to see national news outlets discussing “permanent punishments,” like the loss of voting rights. Criminal convictions often become obstacles to finding jobs and housing, and bar people from voting, owning guns and pursuing some careers.

An estimated 77 million Americans have a criminal record of some kind, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nearly 20 million, according to another estimate, have been convicted of felonies.

Differences abound between Mr. Trump and the vast majority of Americans who are convicted of felonies, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately Black, Latino and Native American. It is extremely rare for a criminal case to even go to trial; most are resolved through plea bargains.

Mr. Trump is running for the highest office in the country, and prosecutors in the case argued that by falsifying business documents to cover up hush-money payments to a porn star, he deceived the American people.

Few of the typical consequences are expected to affect Mr. Trump, who now lives in Florida. Some legal experts said he was likely to retain his voting rights, unlike most other Florida residents convicted of felonies, because he was convicted in a different state.

“Him having a felony conviction now, that doesn’t make him one of us,” said David Ayala, who lives in Orlando, Fla., and said that his last criminal conviction, for conspiracy to sell drugs in 2000, still kept him from accompanying his daughters on school field trips. “He has had access to plenty of resources. He has privilege.”

Yet Mr. Ayala recognized a chance to make criminal justice a bigger issue. “Here we have a former president who feels he did not receive a fair trial,” he said. “So what does that say about our justice system?”

At the same time, Mr. Ayala cannot forget that after a group of Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in connection with the rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, Mr. Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty. The teenagers, who became known as the Central Park Five, were later exonerated and the real perpetrator was identified.

Mr. Ayala said that it was tricky to craft a statement about the Trump conviction on behalf of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement, a network of groups that he leads.

The group’s leaders wanted to caution against the use of terms like “felon” and “convicted criminal” for Mr. Trump, but without appearing to support him. “There are so many characteristics to him that are completely against what we stand for,” Mr. Ayala said, citing Mr. Trump’s record on race.

Mr. Buford, in Nashville, was less guarded in his hopes for capitalizing on the moment. He served 26 years for killing a man during an armed robbery when he was 19, and he knows that political will can be very different when it comes to people whose offenses were, like Mr. Trump’s, nonviolent.

“We have a different narrative now,” he said. “President Biden could do massive clemencies right now. I think it can change things for us if we strategize and think bigger and leave our personal feelings out of it.”



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