by Jo Ellen Nott
On January 4, 2023, a pair of former felons joined the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The two Democrats, Leonela Felix, 35, and Cherie Cruz, 50, say their shared mission is to help people rebuild their lives after run-ins with the law. It’s a cause dear to their hearts, since both women were convicted of a drug felony and locked up in their younger years.
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 which have adopted reforms to help the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives. Their bill provides for automatically sealing people’s criminal records to prevent employers and landlords from using them to make discriminatory decisions in employment and housing. They also plan to build on Felix’s work from her first term as state representative, assuring that legalized cannabis legislation includes automatic record expungement.
Leonela “Leo” Felix is a first-generation Dominican American attorney and formerly incarcerated advocate, whose drug-related felony resulting from a toxic romantic relationship caused her to bounce from job to job. Felix would omit the information 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 for District 61, after prevailing in the Democratic primary over an incumbent who defended status-quo policing and sentencing laws.
Several generations of Cherie Cruz’s family have lived in Pawtucket, the community where she and Felix ran for office. Her 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. The reform allowed people to vote upon release; previously Rhode Islanders on probation or parole could not vote.
Cruz, a single mom of four, became 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. Cruz volunteered for ten years with the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was appointed Chair of the Board. Cruz was recently named the Rhode Island ACLU Lay Leader of the Decade for her continued advocacy for constitutional rights. She was elected the Democratic representative of District 58 in November 2022.
Felix and Cruz’s rise from drug-related felony convictions to the state house was made possible after their records were sealed and expunged. That enabled them to stabilize their lives. But both say the process involved many hard-fought battles. They now want to make things easier on those who come next.
Sources: Bolts Magazine, Run for Something
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