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Atlanta group wants to change city's Bill of Rights | Here's why

People with a criminal conviction are barred from parts of society, so these women are working to break down some of those barriers.

ATLANTA — People with a criminal conviction are barred from parts of society -- from applying for housing to applying for a fishing license. Two women in Atlanta are using their experiences to chip away at these barriers and create change for "justice-impacted people."

Denise Ruben and Bridgette Simpson started the Georgia nonprofit Barred Business, which helps people hope for a new life after being locked up. The organization chooses to describe the formerly incarcerated as people who were impacted by the nation's justice system and works to include them in society and provide resources.

This assistance often manifests in helping justice-impacted people find housing. It also funds and advocates for legal protection. Ruben and Simpson have based much of their work on their life experiences, creating transitional resources that they struggled to find after serving their sentences.

"So I think folks talk about the sentence -- the 10 years, the 15 years, the 30 years -- but they don't talk about the ever-growing life sentence, the open-ended sentence that continues for the rest of your life," Simpson said. "Being a justice-impacted person, you know, you're discriminated against." 

Simpson said the duo works to limit such discrimination and give justice-impacted people a fighting chance.

More recently, they helped people with criminal records obtain new legal protections in the city by fighting to give them a "protected class" status through an Atlanta City Council ordinance. The anti-discrimination measure means city institutions can't deny people goods and services based on their criminal background.

But their efforts don't stop there. 

Simpson said the organization is now working with the City Council to change Atlanta's Bill of Rights.

"People make decisions about people like me at tables that I have no idea about. I'm not included, I'm not invited, nor do people want me around -- but those laws directly impact me," she said. "So I did some research, I spoke to a couple of different organizations here in Atlanta and realized that in the Bill of Rights, the very charter, the fabric of Atlanta, we got protected classes."

She said by adding justice-impacted people to the charter, Atlanta will be rewriting history.

Including formerly incarcerated individuals in the city's Bill of Rights, prevents people with a criminal past from being discriminated against on a wider scope. Their protections would be enforceable across the city -- taking the previously passed ordinance a step further, going beyond city government institutions.

Simpson said it's all part of the organization's efforts to eliminate barriers for those looking for a second chance.

"In 2021, there were 10.7 million people in the City of Atlanta, 4.6 million of them were justice-impacted," she said. "It's too many people for us not to be thinking of ways to give folks second chances. There are too many people for us not to."

Barred Barriers' proposal to change Atlanta's Bill of Rights is expected to be introduced Monday by Councilperson Matt Westmoreland.

To learn more about Barred Business, click here.

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