St. Pete program helps felons transition back into society

- After being released from prison, navigating through their new life with a new, stigmatizing label can be a tough transition for convicted felons.

"Housing and employment are probably the biggest struggles for somebody with a felony," said Julia Delmerico, Re-entry program manager at Pinellas RELINK in St Petersburg.

The state-funded program works with about 20 clients a month, all between the ages of 18-26, convicted of a range of crimes.

Case managers help clients with job training, assistance finding housing and health services.

"Many apartments or landlords will do a background check and disqualify these clients right off the back," said Delmerico.

Gabriel Sullivan, 30, was one of the fortunate few to have family support when he was released from prison after serving a 10-year sentence.

"I had four counts of armed robbery, three armed robberies, one attempt. I also had a fleeing and eluding, leaving the scene of an accident with injuries," explained Sullivan.

At 19 years old, Sullivan fell into the wrong crowd and got a hold of drugs and a stolen gun to commit robberies with along with his friends. He was caught after police spotted him driving a stolen car and he fled the scene.

Sullivan was sentenced to 25 years in 2006. He served 10 years in prison.

"I took a negative experience, and made it as positive as I could," said Sullivan.

Since being released from prison in 2016, Sullivan moved in with his family, and a friend helped him land a job cooking at a restaurant. Sullivan was quickly promoted to kitchen manager.

"I work 40 to 60 hours a week," said Sullivan.

Despite changing his life, Sullivan and all other convicted felons in Florida are banned from owning guns, serving on a jury and voting.

RELINK case managers help some of their clients through the lengthy process of applying to have their rights restored by the governor five years after finishing serving their time and probation.

"We're not talking about people that are sitting in jail or prison registering to vote while they're in there.

These are people that are paying taxes and in the community. They should have the opportunity to be able to vote," said Delmerico.

Come November, if 60 percent of Florida voters approve, a constitutional amendment would restore voting rights to Florida felons, except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

Sullivan said he believes in second chances.

"Nothing will set me back. Nothing will make me go back into the old ways when I was a child," said Sullivan.

Since RELINK was started in March of 2017, the program has enrolled 65 people so far.

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