‘A felony conviction is a life sentence. It follows you everywhere you go, even though it’s not relevant to who you really are.’
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Another step towards destroying personal responsibility. Felon is descriptive of a certain level of crime. More then your past in whose reality? Would she feel the same about rapists?
Sitting nervously in the driver’s seat, Sarah Zarba shivered from heroin withdrawal as police sirens pierced the air.
Her eyes frantically searched the Blockbuster Video store in Water Mill, LI, for her boyfriend Dalshawn Artis, but she didn’t see him. Artis was supposed to emerge any minute with cash stolen from the register in the couple’s latest Bonnie-and-Clyde-style stick-up.
But “the next thing I know the cops came at me with guns drawn,” Zarba said.
As she stepped out of the vehicle, handcuffs snapped around her delicate wrists. At 19, she was under arrest — and labeled a felon for the rest of her life.
Now 26, the comely blonde is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. When she looks back at her mug shot from March 2010, the Ivy Leaguer can’t believe it’s the same woman.
“That person was a part of myself that I don’t even know anymore,” she said. “I can barely recognize my face.”
Zarba — along with fellow Columbia student and felon Leyla Martinez — is leading a campaign to have the criminal-background question removed from applications to the Ivy League school. The women are also working to ban words such as “felon” and “ex-convict” from the language.
“A felony conviction is a life sentence,” said Zarba. “It follows you everywhere you go, even though it’s not relevant to who you really are.”
In 2010, Zarba was charged with 11 counts of robbery and convicted on one count after plea bargaining. She spent a year in jail and 18 months in rehab.
Zarba said her journey from high-school freshman to getaway driver in 11 Long Island armed heists started with her getting hooked on drugs in the small suburban town of Bellport, LI.
“I was a rebellious kid and wanted to do my own thing,” she said. “My parents were great, but we had regular family problems. I never felt like they understood where I was coming from and I took it to the extreme.”
Her lifestyle soon grew even more unstable.
“I started doing drugs when I was 16. First it was weed, and that was a gateway to prescription pills,” she said.
Her opiate habit spiraled out of control. She couldn’t afford to shell out $50 per Oxycontin pill, so she turned to smack.
“Heroin was cheaper,” she said. “It was considered normal to do it. But then everything became about how to get my next fix.”
Desperate to support their $250-a-day habit, she and Artis started knocking off convenience stores and gas stations at night. With Artis brandishing a BB gun, they scored $200 to $1,200 per stickup.
“I wasn’t thinking about the consequences of my actions,” Zarba said of the crime spree.
First the young woman was put in the Suffolk County jail. She was then forced into drug treatment at a Brooklyn facility before being sent to the Nassau County jail.
In 2012, she emerged a free woman — on multiple levels. She soon enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, knowing she wanted to help others with criminal histories. She earned a bachelor’s in criminal justice there.
This fall, Zarba started her on master’s degree in social work at Columbia. In addition to theory and research classes, she is doing a leadership fellowship, planning conferences and events on the issue of incarceration.
She applied to the fabled Morningside Heights institution because she believed that attending an elite school would help others see beyond her crimes.
“I thought if I got in, people would finally see me for my potential and achievements rather than for my past,” she said.
But when she powered through the school’s lengthy application, the question about having a criminal background nearly put her off.
“I felt very discouraged. But I wrote about what happened and hoped for the best,” she said.
In April, she got her acceptance e-mail.
Zarba and Martinez, 42, have now drafted a “Beyond the Box” initiative to get the school to nix the box with the crime question on its application. Martinez, a junior at the Columbia School of General Studies, was arrested in 2000 for writing fraudulent checks and spent two years at Rikers Island and Westchester jails.
“Seeing the question knocked the wind out of me,” said Martinez. “Just because I made a mistake when I was younger doesn’t mean I don’t deserve an education. I did my time, why do I have to keep paying for it?”
Both Zarba and Martinez hope their efforts will put college education within closer reach for people like them, who made mistakes in their past and paid for it.
“Getting into Columbia was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Martinez said. “Others deserve that chance, too.”