The third time a company offered her a job, then rescinded it, Katie Tourand lost all hope.
Although she had served time for two felonies almost a decade ago, Tourand had spent the intervening years cleaning up her act.
She recovered from addiction, had children and got a business degree. But on the last step to turning her life around — embarking on a career in marketing — she kept hitting a roadblock.
Although they were wooed by her résumé and skills, potential employers would balk once they did a criminal-background check.
"I felt like I got punched in the stomach," said Tourand, now 29.
Like Tourand, hundreds of thousands of Minnesota ex-offenders — adults with convictions who have completed the terms of their sentences, whether they be probation, parole or prison — face similar barricades to employment. In Minnesota, employers are allowed to make blanket prohibitions on hiring people with criminal records.
Now, some ex-offenders have the option of a second chance.
A new law that went into effect Jan. 1 makes it easier for Minnesotans convicted of low-level felonies — as well as misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and juvenile delinquency — to seal their records from the background checks routinely run by employers and landlords.
"It's good for everyone," said Gary Schiff, president of the Council on Crime and Justice, one of the leading advocacy organizations that lobbied for the change. "If someone has a job, if someone has housing, they are less likely to re-offend and end up back behind bars."
Under the new law, some former offenders can apply to have their records sealed two to five years after completing their sentences. Victims have the opportunity to weigh in during the process, and expungement is not guaranteed.
This law is only the latest in a wave of reforms in criminal justice sweeping Minnesota and the rest of the country. State-by-state, there has been a push to help people who have low-level, nonviolent criminal records move on from their pasts.
"We see ourselves as part of a national movement," said Sarah Walker, founder of the Second Chance Coalition, a local criminal justice reform group.
In Minnesota, advocates won in 2013 the "ban the box" legislation that deters employers from looking into criminal backgrounds until after an interview with the applicant. And in the upcoming legislative session, they will work to pass a law making it easier for former felons to get their voting rights restored.
All told, this is a trifecta of bipartisan efforts to provide better opportunities for ex-offenders to re-enter society.
"If we want to create pathways out of poverty and into prosperity, then we have to develop the infrastructure to allow individuals to be judged on their skills and qualifications, and not just on their past," said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, chief author of all three bills.
From Subway to school
Tourand's troubles began in high school when she started doing drugs. She dropped out of school, moved out of her home in Burnsville and got her first charge, second-degree possession, at age 18. She served four months in jail, and when she got out, went right back to using drugs.
At 20, she had a second felony charge, for aiding and abetting a check forgery.
Everything changed when she found out, shortly after her second arrest, that she was pregnant.
"That was the catalyst, the motivator, the inspiration," said the well-spoken and candid Tourand. "It was everything I needed to stop."
Tourand returned to her family, had a son, Jack, whom she gave up for adoption, and took "baby steps" to get back on track. She made sandwiches at Subway for years, until she decided to go back to school.
That was the first time she experienced how different life could be for felons. At Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Tourand volunteered with get-out-the-vote initiatives. But she couldn't legally cast a ballot.
Tourand later transferred to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to study marketing.
She was able to work part-time during school and didn't have any issues getting those jobs. So when Carlson hosted a job fair for seniors, she took advantage of it.
"I was all excited about what my future was going to hold, until I realized these are all major corporations and they are all requiring a background check," she said.
She said she received signed offer letters from Wells Fargo and MetLife; both were rescinded. Another employer told her over the phone that she would have been hired if not for the record. (Neither Wells Fargo nor MetLife could discuss the particulars of Tourand's case, but spokespeople for both companies said that they are required to comply with federal screening standards.)
Having the offers revoked was devastating for Tourand. "I had my head down working so hard for so long and to have this happen, it hit me — I realized, this is going to be my future," she said. "I felt really hopeless."
Taking a stand
So she decided to do something about it.
Tourand got involved with criminal justice advocates who were waging a campaign to change the expungement law. She told elected leaders her story, on the record.
"I spoke at the final committee meeting before the vote on it, and it was very liberating," she said. "I was like, 'What do I have to lose? I can't get a job anyway.' "
Things began to turn around almost immediately. At the bill-signing ceremony, Gov. Mark Dayton came up to her and offered her a part-time job.
Turns out, there was something to Tourand's catharsis. Christopher Uggen, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher on expungement, found in a study he conducted that just the idea of expungement helped ex-offenders get jobs.
"Almost immediately it has a positive value," Uggen said. "Expungement helps present a more balanced vision of a job seeker than just one record on paper, and at the same time, it also provides some hope for people who are stigmatized."
Last fall, Tourand finally got her dream job, working full-time in digital marketing for a local firm. Her bosses didn't think her record was relevant. When her new colleagues look her up online and find links to articles about the expungement law, they "go out of their way to tell me how proud they are of me," Tourand said.
She's still living with her father in the Burnsville house where she grew up, because her criminal history prevents her from easily renting an apartment. There, she raises her 3-year-old son, Charlie. She still sees Jack, too.
She is finally beginning to work toward getting her record sealed.
She hopes her journey can inspire others in her position to take control of their pasts.
"Before this, you had to sit in the shadows and wait for someone who was willing to take a chance on you. But now, we're actually able to come out of hiding," she said.
"I understand what I did in the past was wrong, but I'm not as ashamed. I own it."