Sean Pelzer didn’t fit the standard profile of a State House lobbyist — not even a lobbyist on behalf of ex-convicts.
But at the height of the battle to reform the state’s criminal justice laws a decade ago, Pelzer — a charismatic army veteran turned community organizer — was a tireless advocate for easing the path of criminal offenders back into society. From Beacon Hill to Brockton, Pelzer was an unceasing force behind the effort to reform the CORI laws that often blocked ex-offenders from employment and housing.
Pelzer was a US Army veteran who ran into trouble with the law after returning home. His offenses were nonviolent and stemmed, perhaps, from the difficulties many face in trying to readjust to a society where they never quite fit in.
But he found a career as a community organizer, working for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, and other groups. Last week, at a Veterans Administration hospital in Connecticut to get treatment for a knee ailment, Pelzer suddenly suffered a massive heart attack. He was 48, and left behind a large family and a host of shocked colleagues who fondly remember his commitment to advocacy.
“Sean was the real deal,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union for Minority Neighborhoods. “He was straight-up street. He wasn’t some well-meaning lefty coming to save the black folks. He came from that world. He knew who they were, he knew how they thought.”
Pelzer came out of nowhere. As the push to reform the state’s CORI laws began to gather momentum, Small sought to bring in organizers who were personally affected by the issue. At one meeting with a small group of ex-offenders, he asked prospective organizers to check off the activities they might be willing to help out with.
“Sean checked every box,” Small said. “And then he started coming into our office every day.”
He was a tireless canvasser, happy to go door-to door in any neighborhood to spread the word about easing the path of reentry for ex-convicts.
“My favorite story was getting a call from the police station in JP saying we have one of your guys,” Small said. “He was [near] Jamaica Pond going to those million-dollar homes, putting information about CORI into people’s mailboxes. The thing we loved about Sean was that he was fearless. He would go to community meetings, he would go to bars. He would go anywhere people were involved in this work.”
Pelzer’s life wasn’t always, shall we say, seamless. He fathered 10 children, who range in age from 7 to 27. He struggled, at times, to stay out of trouble. Brian Corr, who runs the Cambridge Police Commission, met him even before Small when he volunteered to help on a social justice campaign for the ACLU of Massachusetts. For a while after that campaign, Pelzer was incarcerated on a probation violation, and Corr would send him political reading material to keep his spirits up. He emerged ready to volunteer in the next campaign.
“So often activists and people who’ve dealt with the system can become angry or bitter,” Corr said. “He never had any anger or bitterness. Everything was always from a positive outlook.”
After CORI reform was approved in 2011 Pelzer worked tirelessly to counsel ex-convicts on how to get their criminal records expunged. He knew the new law as well as anyone, and he basically held office hours on Saturdays in a Roxbury pizza shop, where he offered counsel.
“He didn’t have any problem helping people who needed help,” said Sharnda Young, his ex-wife. “He was an inspirational speaker, and he loved research. And he was a very devoted father. He always put the kids first.”
Small estimates that Pelzer helped 400 people get their records cleared after the passage of CORI reform. That’s 400 people who had dramatically better odds of getting a job or finding housing — of restarting their lives — because of Pelzer’s direct advocacy.
That is no small legacy.