Jun. 29—Kristy Laschober was an undergraduate student at Southern Oregon University in the spring of 2019 when a professor advised her, in the form of an assignment, to sign up for Twitter.
Laschober didn't know much about the social media application but did as she was told. A short time later Noel Vest, a postdoctoral scholar in the Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab at Stanford Medicine, sent Laschober a Twitter message: I see you were formerly incarcerated, he wrote. So was I, and I helped get a "ban the box" on college applications bill passed in Washington state. Interested in attempting the same in Oregon?
Laschober, 55, who was well acquainted with the feeling of anxiety associated with the box Vest had helped vanquish up north — the one prospective students must check had they been convicted of a crime — said yes, though she had no idea what that commitment really meant. That snap decision sparked a two-year crusade for Laschober that culminated June 15, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 713 into law.
The bill bans colleges from requiring prospective students from disclosing whether they've been convicted of a crime and requires post-secondary institutions to notify those applicants if their chosen course, apprenticeship, program, major or degree pathway is likely to lead to professional licensure requirements that may exclude those with criminal convictions.
Laschober had just returned from a run through the backwoods of Ashland when she received the good news. She was already feeling euphoric about life, about her path, about her work for the local nonprofit Reclaiming Lives/Recovery Café, and was reflecting on how much her life had changed since she was released from prison four years prior. Then came the email notification, alerting her that Brown had signed SB 713 into law.
"After that call I thought, wow, life is so amazing," Laschober said. "It's like, I'm running free, I was so full, and then I get home and I see the email that the governor signed and I just broke down, really out of gratitude. It still makes me emotional, just the hope."
Laschober is very open about why SB 713 was so personal to her. Born with health issues, she became addicted to opioids early in life but kicked the habit for 10 years before relapsing as an adult. Things went from bad to worse when she was introduced to methamphetamines, and Laschober was busted in Las Vegas after trying to sell meth to a priest. At the time she was married to a narcotics officer. He had no idea.
"I was someone living two lives," she said. "So when you try a drug like (meth), it pretty much takes over. Even though you think it won't, it does."
Her punishment was harsh for a first-time drug offender: five years in federal prison. She walked out in a little more than four years, in 2017, and moved to Ashland to be closer to her mom and sister. She was free but homeless, and quickly adapted to the struggle of rebuilding a life from the ground up. In her previous life, Laschober worked as a wardrobe stylist. After prison, she happily accepted a pair of jeans from a woman at the halfway house she was staying at.
"Trying to get a job in the rain with no car, with no house," she said. "It was hopeless."
But Laschober's life took a sudden detour when she landed in U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken's Reentry Court, a federal initiative that surrounds parolees with support services to help them successfully acclimate to life outside prison. Those who complete the 12-month program have one year shaved off their parole — Laschober had five years, so it seemed like a good deal to her.
Now, Laschober considers Aiken a mentor of sorts.
"What I found was so amazing there," she said of Reentry Court. "(Aiken) said, why aren't you in college? I said I did some college but I was sick a lot while I was doing it so I never finished. So she strongly urged me to go back."
Laschober took that advice and in 2020 graduated from SOU summa cum laude. There was no criminal history box on the college application she filled out prior to enrolling at SOU, but the box was part of her scholarship applications, and the experience of being confronted with the question there, she said, is why she was able to speak passionately about the subject when it came time to push for the bill's passage. The bill does not impact scholarship applications, but Laschober hopes that's a change that's also coming.
"Because you're in this transparency living a life of integrity and doing great, and then you come to that box and you panic," she said. "And really, statistics say 66% of people that come to that box and have a record, they don't continue."
Tackling the question on her scholarship applications, Laschober at first tried to explain her situation as best she could, but realized after several failed attempts that there are some life experiences that can't be summed up in a few single-spaced lines on a form. She erased her first several tries before settling on a simple plea: "Please give me a chance."
"And I thought, well, that really sucks to have to beg to have a chance," she said. "And I have a lot of support. Most people in prison don't have support, so the fact that they're going out of their way to check that box without support — it's shame, really, that takes over."
That's why Vest's question sparked such an immediate response in Laschober. Over the next two years she learned all about the wheels of government, all the steps that must be taken to keep those wheels spinning and a bill alive. In between, COVID-19 complicated matters, but Laschober pressed on.
Already civically engaged and a student leader at SOU, Laschober was on a Zoom meeting with Sen. Michael Dembrow concerning higher education in prisons when the subject was first broached. She was surprised when Dembrow jumped on board — he ended up co-sponsoring the bill. Laschober also credited Rep. Pam Marsh, another co-sponsor, with helping to move the bill forward.
"We just kept it going," Laschober said. "(Dembrow) got the bill written, and he was very kind in regard to sending me emails and text messages. That was surprising, that a senator would be so available in asking my thoughts on everything. I said, 'Hey, can you do a Zoom with me and (Vest) and Shawn (Sorensen)?' And he said, 'Sure.'"
Sorensen, another former SOU student now pursuing his master's at Portland State, also graduated from SOU in 2020 but didn't meet Laschober until after Sorensen saw Vest at a national collegiate recovery conference in Boston. There, Vest spoke about the national "ban the box" movement and introduced Sorensen to Laschober, and that's how the two wound up lobbying for the bill together in Salem.
"(Laschober) was definitely the driving force and was able to sustain a lot of the communication with representatives over the last year," Sorensen said.
Sorensen had a personal stake in the bill, too — several felony convictions that created a mental block when he arrived at the question on the Common App, an undergraduate college application through which prospective students can apply to more than 900 colleges and universities. He would go on to work as a program assistant for SOU's Community of Recovery in Education (CORE) program, but back when he was still working on turning his life around Sorensen stopped filling out the Common App when he arrived at the convicted-of-a-crime box.
Laschober's tenacity and passion helped get her in the door in Salem, but she still needed a map to negotiate the maze of state government. For that, she turned to Jeanne Stallman, SOU's associate vice president for government and corporate relations. Stallman agreed to meet Laschober at an Ashland coffee shop downtown and, after hearing Laschober's plan, offered to explain the ins and outs of Oregon government.
Those lessons went on for months. When Laschober needed to know what to do next, she often went to Stallman first. And like most senate bills, there were a lot of nexts when it came to SB 713. The bill was introduced with a first reading Jan. 22. Then came a public hearing, then a work session, amendments, a second reading and so on. The third reading, held June 2, passed the House with a 31-20 vote, and five days later it squeaked through the Senate, 16-13.
Stallman said the work that went into the bill is, to her, part of what makes SOU a special place.
"What struck me about it was just being delighted and proud of Kristy as our alum, for her starting this issue and being ready and willing to step up and put her own work into it," Stallman said, "because that's, I think, something we do particularly well at SOU, we pride ourselves in. It's in our mission. We prepare graduates to be civically engaged in a democracy, and here she was stepping up and doing it."
To Laschober, SB 713 represents a second chance for so many ex-felons like her who are ready and willing to do the work it takes to turn their lives around. She doles out the credit liberally. It was a team effort, she says, and one that required a lot of work and bipartisan support for a subject that wasn't likely to receive a lot of headlines. But, she says, it was well worth it.
"People can complain about a million things," she said, "but what are you doing to make a difference? I just felt so much hope for myself and for all the other people who have been in prison."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.