Over the last seven years, Ohio’s been slowly changing a set of laws that many believe keeps ex-offenders from getting jobs, paying child support and even volunteering in their community.
At the front desk of the Summit Lake Community Center in Akron, Andrew Bridges put on a blue name tag and joined about a dozen people meeting with students from the University of Akron’s legal clinic to see about sealing their criminal records.
Bridges just turned 46. He has five kids, ages 10 to 15. Two are taking college-level classes in middle school. He has a job, but wants a better one, ideally as a truck driver. However he also has a record, accumulated over 25 years. Small stuff, as felonies go - possession of cocaine, trafficking in marijuana, but they are felonies nonetheless.
“I was kind of a bad boy at one time, you know. I did four and-a-half years in prison. And it just got old. You know?” he said.
He smiled as he outlined his plans. Seal the record, get married and go to school to get his Commercial Driver’s License. He gets a different reaction from would-be employers.
It’s a version of a story told dozens of times at this and the other clinics the law school held monthly around Akron. The number of people showing up on Saturday mornings accelerated last fall, when lawmakers raised the cap on the number of felony convictions that could be sealed, from two to five.
Clinic Co-Director Russel Nichols reviews each application and files the motions to seal the records. Then probation departments do a more extensive background check. Prosecutors weigh in, and each sentencing judge holds a hearing. The process takes about six months.
Nichols said courts, cops, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, employers, prosecutors and re-entry advocates support the expansion, in part because of the opioid crisis.
“The legislature has recognized that drug addiction is an illness, and people that get past that illness should not have to live with the stigma of that felony record,” he said.
Sealing doesn’t make the record go away. Some state agencies can still see it. Nothing blocks private background checks from listing what they find. A two-page list of convictions, including sex crimes and violent offenses, disqualifies someone from even applying.
Bridges discovered another limit.
An hour after he entered the clinic with a prayer and a smile, the smile faded. His two-decade clusters of felonies total seven, which is two over the new limit.
He began to leave the clinic.
“It seems like everything they’re always holding over your head even after you served your time," he said.
Then he turned toward another option, the Certification of Qualification for Employment clinic across the hall.
The qualification tells potential employers that, despite a criminal record, someone is a safe bet to hire. It also tells the more than 500 state boards that issue professional licenses, from pipefitters to nursing assistants, that a record should not automatically disqualify someone.
Bridges would prefer a sealed record, but he spends the next hour with a law student, filling out the online application that asks for job and family history, references and even what training he received in prison.
Summit County Assistant Prosecutor Ray Hartsough is available to answer questions. He said his presence at the clinic is part of the prosecutor’s commitment to second chances. He’s been working at the clinics since he started law school, and it’s personal.
“My very first client, his name was Ray and he was born on my birthday. And I sat there and I realized that but for the grace of God, I would be on the other side of the table,” Hartsough said.
Like record sealing, the certificate process is complex. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections must approve it. Then applicants must bring the paperwork to the Summit County Common Pleas Court, where prosecutors weigh in, magistrates review the case and judges make the final decision.
Summit County has completed the most applications in the state since the program began in 2013, close to 300 of them. But that’s just a tiny fraction of those who could qualify. In fact, it’s less than half the people who fill out the initial application. So earlier this spring, the legal clinic began making follow-up phone calls to applicants.
Joann Sahl, the assistant director of the legal clinic, said it’s a wise investment.
“That’s what the re-entry movement is all about is to give people who deserve it a second chance so they can be part of their communities and to make their communities stronger,” she said.
How Ohio’s criminal record sealing works
For years, Ohio allowed only first-time offenders convicted of a single felony to seal their records. Lawmakers broadened it a bit in 2012 and last fall, the Ohio Legislature expanded that to as many as five 4th and 5th degree felonies and an unlimited number of most misdemeanors. But there are limits. While many call the sealing “expunging” a record, sealing does not destroy a record altogether.
What does sealing a record cover?
If granted, the record is no longer a part of regular government databases, available to most employers and landlords. But is can still be viewed, for example, by prosecutors, judges, professional licensing boards and by employers in law enforcement and jobs working with children or the elderly.
Who is eligible?
People with one felony can apply three years after they complete their sentence, including probation and paying fines and restitution. Those with two must wait four years. And those with three to five felonies must wait five years. People facing only misdemeanors must wait a year.
What crimes are eligible?
The sealing is aimed primarily at 4th or 5th degree lower-level, nonviolent offenses. Among the offenses that cannot be sealed are those carrying mandatory prison terms, crimes of violence, sex crimes and crimes involving children.
How does the process work?
While a lawyer is required, the process is a complex court proceeding. Many legal aid and other groups, such as the University of Akron Re-entry Clinic, offer help.
At the Akron clinic, law students do a preliminary background check as part of the application for a motion to seal, and the clinic files the motion with the clerk of courts in each jurisdiction in which a person has been convicted.
After a probation department has done a more thorough background check, and prosecutors weigh in, the judges set hearings on the motion. Among the things judges consider is balancing the interests of the individual against the maintaining the public record.
For more information, visit the Restoration of Rights Project website.