PROVIDENCE — As someone who has had a criminal record, Representative Leonela Felix said she knows all too well what it’s like to suffer from the collateral consequences of a past conviction.
“For years, I struggled to be able to find housing,” she said on the Rhode Island Report podcast. “I was fired from every job, every single time, or even not given opportunities just because I would check that box that said, yes, I have a criminal record.”
Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, said she had been straight-A student in high school, and she would go on graduate from Rhode Island College cum laude, earn a law degree, and win a seat in the House of Representatives.
But she said that would not have been possible if she had not gone through a diversion program and had a drug-related felony conviction expunged from her record in 2007. And she said that personal experience prompted her to champion the addition of an automatic expungement provision in the legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.
“I know what it’s like to have that record on you, as a clutch to not be able to obtain and get those opportunities,” Felix said. “And I really didn’t want my fellow Rhode Islanders to have to go through the same struggles or continue to have those struggles, particularly when we’re making revenue from the legalization of cannabis. It’s just unfair to even think that to be a possibility.”
The House and Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly for the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, which legalizes recreational marijuana for adults, and Governor Daniel J. McKee signed it into law on Wednesday. The revised legislation provides for automatic expungement of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor, or felony conviction for possession of cannabis that would be decriminalized by the bill. Those seeking expungements would not have to file requests, pay fees or have hearings.
Rhode Island is the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana, and it has “one of the best” laws in the nation, Felix said, because it includes automatic expungements and “social equity” provisions such as the creation of “social equity fund” to benefit those “negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.”
“The other 18 states that have legalized cannabis, they’ve waited years before they actually address the equitable pieces of their legislation,” Felix said. “This bill is nationwide at the forefront because we made sure that we prioritize our communities, not just revenues for legalizing cannabis.”
Felix said that if you could deliver a message to her younger self, it would be “to believe in herself.”
“You can be bigger and better than your mistakes,” she said. “You’re not just that one mistake. And to strive on, to not give up, because there were many, many instances in my younger time where I did want to give up... I would just tell myself to not give up and have hope and believe that things do get better.”
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.