CLEVELAND, Ohio — Sterling Braden takes on one of Ohio’s toughest jobs: helping those convicted of crimes start over.
For four years, Braden has worked to connect convicted felons with jobs and housing through his nonprofit organization, Friend a felon. Earlier this year, he developed a mobile app from scratch by watching YouTube videos. It now serves nearly 1,000 people seeking help.
Braden knows the problems and difficulties faced by criminals. He grew up in East Cleveland, and like so many men who find themselves caught up in the prison industrial complex, he fell weak in the face of peer pressure and the environment around him. Convicted himself, he said it took years to find stability for himself and his 4-year-old daughter, Quin.
“I was convicted of a crime when I was 18 and never went to jail, but I felt the effects as soon as I was charged,” Braden said. “I am now 28 years old. [I am] a convicted criminal [who] I still can’t find a job, I still can’t have a house in my name, I still can’t support myself and protect myself and my family without fear of going back to prison, and I’m not just one of millions.
“We are released with nothing and they expect us to change our lives. How it works?”
In Ohio, one in five felons sent to prison returns within three years after committing a new crime, according to a 2021 study by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. When parole violations are caught taking into account, the figures climb to around one in three criminals returning to prison.
Charles R. See pioneered rehabilitation programs and criminal justice initiatives while working for more than 44 years at the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in Cleveland. He retired in 2017. He said while good has been done to help returning criminals, many barriers to reintegration remain. In fact, Policy Matters Ohio reported that there are more than 850 laws and penalties that limit employment opportunities for Ohioans with felony convictions.
“While a lot has changed, there is still a stigma associated with having a criminal record,” See said.
He said several issues hamper people with criminal records: some struggle to obtain professional licenses, while others cannot receive services such as scholarships and decent wages from their employers.
He cited some programs and laws that have come into effect to facilitate the reinstatement process, such as “Ban the Box,” a law passed by Ohio lawmakers in 2015 that prohibits public employers from asking questions about the conviction of a person for a crime.
“But there are still a number of hurdles that someone with a criminal record faces,” See said.
Braden said he hopes his app will help more criminals across the state find jobs and housing, two meaningful ways to keep them from returning to courtrooms and jail cells.
When he started the nonprofit in 2018, he initially just wanted to help people get their records cleared and find jobs. But he was looking for more. He wanted a comprehensive helpline that criminals could turn to when they ran into trouble.
He just lacked the funds to do it.
So he built the mobile app from scratch, watching videos on YouTube explaining how to make it. He said it was the first of its kind, allowing users to connect with employers and property owners who post ads and can create matches in seconds.
Braden said he doesn’t consider himself a comeback expert, but he stressed that a strong support system with a plan moving forward is key.
“Being convicted of a crime doesn’t have to define your future,” he said. “We are committed to helping criminals overcome these circumstances by making them aware of the opportunities they didn’t know were available to them.”
Braden said more needed to be done. He wants to build offices to house his nonprofit and lobby for local offices in cities.
“It’s about me being the change I want to see,” he said.