End of Year Reflections From CEO Jonathan McLean

When I meet people for the first time, I am often asked “What do you do?” I tell them that I serve as the CEO of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, or CASES—a nonprofit that provides a continuum of services, including mental health care, to people who are caught up in the criminal legal system. But I also make a point of telling them who I am. I say that I am a Black man, born and raised in Brooklyn. This description of who I am means a great deal to me. Above and beyond saying something about my ethnicity and geographic origins, it is an outward expression of how I want the world to experience me. It frames my perspective and hints at my personal journey. If a deeper conversation ensues, I say that I am a husband, father, son, brother and a formerly incarcerated man who spent 16 years in New York State jails and prisons beginning at the age of 16. There was a time when I would never disclose the jail/prison part. Not because I was ashamed of it, but because I understood disclosure could carry severe consequences—people in positions of power and influence could and would use that information against me. 

When I applied to Adelphi University’s graduate program in the Spring of 2006, I had just graduated from their undergraduate program with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work. Less than 3 years earlier, I had been released from prison and was placed under community parole supervision. I was approved to live with my mother and my younger brother in her 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Being cleared to live with family is not always a given with parole, so I was fortunate in that regard. Living with my mother in those early years was a godsend because it allowed me to focus on employment and school without the added burden of worrying about shelter. During my time at Adelphi, I held down a full-time job, picked up additional hours when I could, and attended classes on nights and weekends. I graduated with a 3.98 GPA and was proud of this accomplishment given where I had come from. I did not disclose my conviction history on my undergraduate application for fear that it would be held against me.  

As I sat at my mother’s kitchen table filling out the application for grad school, I reached the question that asked if I had ever been convicted of a felony. I paused. Everything I learned up until that point told me that my skin color, economic status and conviction history would be my personal scarlet letters. I had learned to be cautious and cynical.  After 16 years of prison and 3 years of state supervision, I did not believe that those with power over me had any real interest in my success. But I thought that this could be different. I believed that graduating with a degree from Adelphi proved that I could do the work and do it well. Since my conviction history had not stopped me from getting to that point, I reasoned that it should not stop me from moving beyond it. I checked “yes” on the graduate application and moved to the narrative box that asked me to explain my conviction. I felt a great sense of relief and unburdened for the first time in a long time.  

When I received a letter from a school administrator inviting me to meet at the Garden City campus, I was still riding high on my success and did not think much of it. I don’t recall this administrator’s name or title. But I do remember that she was a Black woman with dreadlocks. She greeted me warmly and congratulated me on my success. She then asked about my professional goals. I proudly told her I was going to be a social worker which was why I was applying to the graduate program. She nodded and smiled. She then looked down at my application, which she had on her desk and noted that I had a conviction history. She asked if I could tell her more about it. I knew that disclosure on the application might bring things to this, so I was ready.

I told her that shortly after turning 16, I got into a verbal altercation with another 16-year-old, pulled out a gun, a scuffle ensued, and I shot him. I explained that the young man subsequently died. I took full responsibility for my actions, conveyed remorse for what I had done and explained the challenges I faced in my environment as a youth. She nodded and thanked me for sharing. She then said she thought I should reconsider my decision to become a social worker. She suggested I become a Certified Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor or CASAC instead. She went on to explain that becoming a CASAC would be a more “realistic” career path for a person with my history.

CASACs have an important role in the behavioral health field, and many CASES staff are certified substance use counselors. They do incredible work with our clients every day. But I was not interested in a career in substance use services. My dream was to become a social worker, which I knew would provide me with a broader range of professional possibilities. That is what I spent three years in school to learn how to do. I sat in stunned silence as I took in her unsolicited advice. My surprise quickly turned to anger as I realized what the meeting was about—I would not be getting into Adelphi University’s graduate school. The irony of successfully completing Adelphi’s undergraduate program with a 3.98 GPA and not being accepted into its graduate program was not lost on me. I walked back to my car disappointed but mostly angry with myself. I had let my guard down. I had dealt with enough disingenuous police officers, prison officials and party-line-toeing parole board commissioners to understand the true meaning behind her words. I should have known better. 

Even after the disappointment I felt, I stayed the course. I eventually became a licensed clinical social worker, working my way up at some of the largest social services agencies in New York City. But I was one of the lucky ones; as I was finding success, thousands of Black and Brown New Yorkers continued to face discrimination because of their conviction histories. Seeing this, and remembering my own experiences after prison, I vowed to do everything I could to support Black and Brown formerly incarcerated people and their families. When I became the leader of CASES, I felt it was important for our organization to sign on to the Clean Slate Initiative. Clean Slate laws provide mechanisms to automatically clear records for people who have served their sentences, helping to prevent discrimination in housing, employment, and education. This year, New York passed its own version of Clean Slate, which will automatically seal eligible misdemeanor convictions after 3 years, and eligible felony convictions after 8 years.  

The passage of the Clean Slate Act into law was an unprecedented and exciting step in the right direction. I applaud the tremendous work done by the broad coalition of impacted people, grassroots organizers, advocates and politicians to get the legislation passed. But even with its passage, people with criminal legal system involvement—disproportionately people of color—will continue to face daunting challenges, especially since there are many exceptions written into the law, and eight years is quite a long time to try to survive in the community with an unsealed felony record. 

Looking beyond Clean Slate, the gains we made with the historic 2020 bail reform legislation have been steadily undone with annual roll backs and revisions. Despite the passage of Raise the Age legislation, children continue to be jailed at ever increasing rates. In New York City, the Crossroads and Horizons facilities are overcrowded with children—some as young as 12 years old. Even with the ongoing activism from a broad coalition pushing the city to meet its legally binding 2027 closure deadline, Rikers Island continues to be a dangerous dysfunctional mess with a daily census that has been trending in the wrong direction since the end of the pandemic. We know the critical importance of mentoring services for at-risk youth, yet long standing mentorship programs like NextSteps, which served young people living in NYCHA housing, have been eliminated with no warning, leaving our young people stranded. While CASES will always be a direct service provider first, our clients and staff are facing extraordinary challenges, and it’s clear that we must double down on our policy and advocacy work in the upcoming year.  

These are dangerous times, and we must stay vigilant and continue to fight. We must block out the noise and continue to stand in our truths with unwavering clarity. Discrimination against formerly incarcerated people must end, poverty and mental illness must not be treated as crimes, and we must invest in our city’s youth.

In 2024, we hope you will join CASES as we continue to fight for the right of those who are caught up in the criminal legal system to live full and meaningful lives. We will be steadfast in our efforts to decriminalize poverty and mental illness, and we will never give up on New York City’s most vulnerable Black and Brown youth—these are our children, and they deserve our enduring support.