Sterling Braden created his nonprofit to help connect convicted felons with job placement and housing.
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Sterling Braden is taking on one of the toughest jobs in Ohio: helping people convicted of crimes start over.
For four years, Braden has worked to connect convicted felons with job and housing placement through his nonprofit, Friend A Felon. Earlier this year, he developed a mobile app from scratch by watching YouTube videos. It now serves nearly 1,000 people in search of help.
Braden knows the issues and struggles felons face. He grew up in East Cleveland and was convicted of theft offenses in 2013 and placed on probation. He said it has taken him years to gain stability for himself and his 4-year-old daughter, Quin.
“I was convicted of a felony when I was 18 and never went to prison, but I have felt the effects of it as soon as I was indicted,” Braden said. “I am now 28. [I am] a convicted felon [who] still can’t get a job, still can’t get a house in my name, still can’t provide for and protect myself and my family without worrying about going back to jail, and I’m just one of the millions.
“We get released with nothing, and they expect us to go and change our lives. How does that work?”
In Ohio, one in five felons sent to prison returns within three years after committing a new crime, according to a study by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in 2021. When parole violations are factored in, the numbers climb to about one in three felons returning to prison.
Charles R. See was a pioneer in re-entry 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 that while some good has been done in assisting returning felons, many barriers to re-entry remain. In fact, Policy Matters Ohio has reported that there are more than 850 laws and sanctions that limit job opportunities for Ohioans with felony convictions.
“While much has changed, there is still a stigma associated with having a criminal record,” See said.
He said there are several issues hindering people with criminal records: Some struggle to obtain professional licenses, while others cannot receive services such as educational grants and decent wages from their employers.
He cited some programs and laws that have gone into effect to help the re-entry process, such as “Ban the Box,” a law passed by Ohio lawmakers in 2015 that prohibits public employers from asking about a person’s felony conviction.
“But there are yet a number of barriers confronting a person with a felony record,” See said.
Braden said he hopes his app will help more felons across the state find work and housing, two meaningful ways to prevent 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 expunged and find jobs. But he sought more. He wanted an all-inclusive helpdesk that felons could turn to when they faced issues.
He just lacked the funds to do it.
So, he built the mobile app from scratch, watching videos on YouTube on how to create it. He said it is the first of its kind, allowing users to connect with employers and property owners who post listings and can create matches within seconds.
Braden said he doesn’t consider himself a re-entry expert, but he stressed that a sound support system with a plan to move forward is vital.
“Being convicted of a felony does not have to define one’s future,” he said. “We are committed to helping felons overcome these circumstances by providing awareness of opportunities they never knew were available to them.”
Braden said more needs to be done. He wants to build offices to house his nonprofit and push for local offices in cities.
“This is about me being the change I want to see,” he said.
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