“Fight for the People Who Have Been Harmed in the Past” – Sheba Williams of Nolef Turns, Inc.

“The intersections between the criminal legal system and cannabis legalization absolutely intersect every day. When people are fighting for legalization, we also need to fight for people to live and be free of criminal recourse,” said Sheba Williams, Founding Director of Nolef Turns Inc. “Fight for legalization and fight for the people who have been harmed in the past.”

Nolef Turns is a non-profit group that advocates for people with criminal and felony convictions throughout Virginia. Founded in 2016, the Richmond-based group’s mission is to support and advocate alongside those with court and justice involvement. Their vision is to be a leader in decreasing the prison population by supporting and empowering those who are most affected by crime, trauma, and incarceration. 

Nolef Turns provides various services to people with convictions, including a back to work program, pre-release services, re-entry services, post-convictions, care for people with convictions following incarceration, and support for families of those with convictions.

Living the Injustices of the Criminal Justice of the System

“Dignity and justice are very important to us,” describes Williams, “Our foundation is solid and solidly rooted in integrity.” To say that Williams comes to her work through lived experience is an understatement. From a young age, Sheba Williams saw the injustices brought upon Black families by the criminal justice system. At 10, she awoke one morning to an empty house to find that both her parents had been taken to jail. Her father was sentenced to 38 years in prison, while her mother served six months; a time in her life that she never recovered from, as the State of Virginia was not concerned with the rehabilitation of those with convictions.

Sheba and her siblings were raised by their grandparents, and credits one of her teachers, Mrs. Odessa Smith, as her biggest source of empowerment, as Mrs. Smith saw Sheba’s natural intelligence and talents, and encouraged her to continue her studies while helping her get her first job in 1995. After graduating fourth in her high school class of almost 200, Sheba enrolled in Norfolk State University to study business, soon giving birth to her first child and almost immediately becoming a single parent.

Soon after securing employment at a local hospital, Sheba’s sister was wrongfully convicted for homicide, leaving Sheba to take care of her sister’s children before being fully acquitted of charges. After having two more children of her own, Sheba knew that it was time to go back to college to get her degree. During this time, she worked extremely long days to fulfill her role as a mother, student, and valued employee at the local hospital, barely finding time to sleep.

Just as Sheba was getting back on her feet, she was hit with a wrongful criminal charge herself when a disgruntled former co-worker implicated her in an embezzlement case. Despite Sheba having the finger wrongfully and unjustifiably pointed at her, she was sentenced to a hefty fine and 5 years probation. She says that during this time, it was next to impossible to find someone to advocate for her case, and the system was focused on punitive measures for something she hadn’t even been involved in. 

While this was traumatic for Sheba, it didn’t stop her from achieving her degree in Business Administration from Norfolk University and moving forward to find stability with her new degree and a good job at the hospital. However, another blow came when she was relieved of her duties at the hospital where she’d worked for six years, stating that she had not disclosed her conviction.

A Strong Need for Advocates Arises

Losing hundreds of inalienable rights affected her life so gravely that Sheba became inclined to advocate for those who had done their time but weren’t allowed to move beyond their convictions. “Inspiration came from others who were surviving life after a conviction in Virginia,” writes Sheba, “Inspiration came from others who didn’t know where to turn, but never gave up. Inspiration came from knowing that almost 95% of individuals who were convicted of a felony in Virginia must reintegrate into society as our neighbors, leaders, brothers, and sisters.” Along with five others, Nolef Turns was founded.

In 2020, when it was announced that the state of Virginia would move towards adult-use cannabis legalization, there was hope that those who had been incarcerated in the state for cannabis “crimes” would have their records expunged. In 2021, a bill nicknamed “The Clean Slate Act” was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, furthering the hope that those who had cannabis offenses could have their records sealed. This was the first time in Virginia’s history that this has even become possible. According to Sheba Williams, over ten people in Virginia are still incarcerated for an offense strictly related to cannabis, while hundreds of others are incarcerated for other offenses but also include a cannabis conviction.

As of 2022, there has been no movement in Virginia towards cannabis legalization, or the expungement of records related to cannabis. In February 2022, the plans to establish an adult-use market were killed by Republicans in the House of Delegates, leaving the provisions for legal cannabis essentially halted.

Virginia Cannabis Users are in a “Dangerous Gap”

“We’re in a dangerous gap because people don’t understand what’s going on and how it impacts everyday folks,” said Sheba, “People are in a ‘gray area’ with understanding because things change so rapidly, and we have to wait until a Bill actually comes through.”

“We want people to stop being arrested for possession of a plant that has more healing properties than alcohol has ever had,” continues Sheba, “We want people to be educated, generate wealth for their families, in order to make money from what has plagued them for years, and for people to not have to live with criminal records for the rest of their lives.”

Nolef Turns currently has two legislative priorities. First is the Right to Vote Campaign, an initiative to amend the Constitution to disallow voter disenfranchisement based on a past conviction, recognizing that voting is a fundamental right to all citizens. The group’s second legislative priority is an Expanded Expungement Bill. “If we are truly a nation of second chances, then we should do what is necessary to dismiss bias and allow for expungement law to expand to those who have previously been convicted of a crime,” reads the language on this priority.

Towards an Equitable Cannabis Industry 

“Poverty is criminalized more than anything in this country,” says Sheba, “When the War on Drugs happened, we were losing funds for affordable housing; parks and recreation, which are a deterrent to crime; neighborhood beautification, which leads to gentrification. Communities were disinvested from.” Sheba speaks of the difficulty of actually reinvesting in communities that were historically hurt by the War on Drugs. “People think we are doing something nefarious when they say to reinvest into the communities, and possibly give some advantages to some people,” she says, “[They] don’t recognize that disinvestment has happened. The reality is most criminal offenses are because of a lack of resources or mental health issues.”

When asked for the future of social equity programs in cannabis and in Virginia, Sheba says, “The burden should not always fall on us, because at the end of the day the state will be making the money so they need to find a way towards social equity.”

“Social equity applicants need to have the resources and tools necessary for success in the industry on Day One,” Sheba says, recognizing that social equity programs should not be a legalization afterthought. “Once the gate is open, you can’t go back. You have to get it right from the beginning.”

According to Sheba, the state of Virginia still has a long way to go before they can implement the processes required to make legislative and criminal justice changes. For instance, Police Services are working on antiquated software that doesn’t allow the sealing of records to happen efficiently, a process of upgrading that could take up to five years.

Despite these challenges, and the long road ahead, Sheba Williams and Nolef Turns are not stopping their advocacy. “It’s still early in 2022,” she says, “We still have time to help the state recognize we can do social equity well.”

Nolef Turns can be supported in a number of ways by the cannabis community. Visit their website to see a list of ways to donate, become a board member, or get involved with one of their Community Partners.

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