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Former Felons Elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives

by Jo Ellen Nott

On January 4, 2023, former prisoners Leonela Felix, 35, and Cherie Cruz, 50, were set to become members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The two share a mission to help people rebuild their lives from prior criminal-legal run-ins. It’s a cause dear to their hearts, since both women were convicted on felony drug charges and spent time in prison.

At the next session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, they plan to introduce a “clean-slate” bill. Following the lead of other states since 2018, their bill would adopt reforms to help the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives. It provides for automatically sealing criminal records. The two also plan to build on Felix’s work from her first term as a state representative, assuring that legalized cannabis legislation includes automatic record expungement.  

Leonela (Leo) Felix is a first-generation Dominican American attorney whose drug-related felony – for which she faults a toxic romantic relationship – caused her to bounce from job to job. Felix would omit her criminal history on job applications, but by the time her bosses discovered her record she would have had at least one paycheck.

After struggling to find housing and income, Felix put herself through college, then law school. In 2020 she won a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, defeating the incumbent in the District 61 Democratic primary. Notably, her opponent defended status-quo policing and sentencing laws.

Several generations of Cherie Cruz’s family have lived in Pawtucket, the community where she and Felix live and ran for office. Cruz’s parents did not have the right to vote nor did Cruz because of felony convictions. That right was restored when her advocacy group passed the Right to Vote Act in 2006, allowing people to vote upon release; previously Rhode Islanders on probation or parole could not vote. 

A single mom of four, Cruz become a first-generation college student after earning her GED. She graduated from Brown University with honors and later earned a master’s degree in Urban Education Policy.She then volunteered with the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was appointed Chair of its Board. She was recently named the Rhode Island ACLU Lay Leader of the Decade for her continued advocacy for constitutional rights. Also running as a Democrat, she was elected to represent District 59 in November 2022.

Felix and Cruz’s rise from prison to the state house was made possible after being able to stabilize their lives once their records were sealed and expunged. Both say those were hard-fought processes, and they now want to make things easier on those who come next. 

Sources:  Bolts Magazine

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