Sunday Conversation with Marissa McCall Dodson

Marissa McCall Dodson, the public policy direct at the Southern Center for Human Rights, speaks at a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday, January 19, 2021. Democratic Georgia state lawmakers held a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue to announce the introduction of two bills that would restore the right to vote to felons in Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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Marissa McCall Dodson, the public policy direct at the Southern Center for Human Rights, speaks at a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday, January 19, 2021. Democratic Georgia state lawmakers held a press conference at the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue to announce the introduction of two bills that would restore the right to vote to felons in Georgia. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Attorney seeks to create taxpayers instead of tax burdens

Marissa McCall Dodson will tell you that the timing is right for reforming how Georgia allows criminal records to be used by employers. It’s also clear that Dodson is the right person for the times. The Spelman College graduate is policy director and an attorney with the Atlanta-based Georgia Justice Project, which offers legal and social services to poor people in the criminal justice system. Dodson has been successful in convincing state officials to restrict the release of certain records so people with a criminal history have a shot of getting a job and turning their lives around. “We talk about our work as creating taxpayers instead of tax burdens,” Dodson said. In July, the National Association of Criminal Justice Lawyers honored Dodson for her “exceptional efforts advocating for progressive reform.”

Q: What drew you to this kind of work?

A: I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. My parents raised both my sister and me to have a heart for the least advantaged in our community. In law school, I did an internship with the Georgia Justice Project and came across a couple of clients who had issues with employment because of their criminal history. This seemed like an area where I could have an impact.

Q: Why is restricting the release of certain criminal records important?

A: Georgia law was so bad that if you were found not guilty at trial by a judge or jury, the charges still showed up on your record. We changed that to restrict the records of people who were not convicted for most purposes.

Q: If you weren’t convicted, why does it matter if someone knows you were arrested?

A: Most employers will admit that they will make a decision based on the information even if someone has not been convicted. That is unfair.

Q: What is the “ban the box” reform?

A: The fourth question on the application for a state job used to be, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" An employer is more likely to decide the relevance of that record once they have had the opportunity to get to know a candidate and their qualifications. Gov. (Nathan) Deal has led by example by removing the question about criminal history from the initial state application. The Home Depot has also implemented this policy and we are looking at some larger Atlanta-based companies to do the same.

Q: Given Georgia’s “tough on crime” reputation, how have you been so successful?

A: The stars aligned. My efforts in 2009 to change the state's expungement law, now called "record restriction," was the first time Georgia Justice Project had tried to do any systemic advocacy work. Then in the following year, Gov. Deal came in and committed to reforming the state's criminal justice system. Since 95 percent of those incarcerated will be released at some point, it was time to change that "lock them up, and lock them again until they get it right" mentality.

Q: What’s next on your list?

A: We would like to see Georgia do what some other states have done — to allow people with convictions to obtain a certificate of relief or rehabilitation that actually means something so they can be considered in certain settings for employment or licensing.

Q: How do you respond to people who say, “Look, they made their bed?”

A: If people who have paid their debt can’t work, we will take care of them one way or another, either through public benefits or by future incarcerations. There just has to be a timeframe where we stop keeping people from opportunities to be productive.

Information: www.gjp.org.

The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.