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Second Chance Month: People need the opportunity to do better

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I used to interview people, mostly teenagers, to work in food service at a local amusement park over the summer. I had to ask everyone about their criminal history and let them know that a disclosure would not prevent them from becoming employed. Only one person ever disclosed their criminal history to me. He was fifteen-years-old and had a juvenile adjudication for felony possession of cocaine. His frantic explanation – “But since I moved in with my Dad, I’ve been staying out of trouble and doing well in school!”

After finishing the interview, I offered him a position. Later on, I checked on his status with a fellow trainer. She explained that human resources was handling his application and despite being told that his record would not negatively affect his chances of employment, he would not be hired.

  • 1 in 6 people in Ohio have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, while 1 in 3 have a criminal record of some sort (including non-conviction arrests).

  • African American and Latino people are arrested at rates 2-3 times the general population and are disproportionately likely to be convicted and incarcerated.

  • Assuming that current incarceration rates persist, 1 in 3 African-American men will be imprisoned in their lifetime.

  • Not only is there a negative perception of people with criminal records who apply for jobs, schools, housing, and more, Ohio law contains over 1000 limitations for people with criminal records (approximately 650 limit employment and professional licensing).

  • Employers are half as likely to call applicants with records, and formerly incarcerated people make 40 percent less than they did before they were incarcerated.

  • Some estimates put the unemployment rate for returning citizens at 60 to 75 percent one year after release.

OJPC’s Second Chance Project helps Ohioans remove barriers they face as a result of prior contact with the criminal justice system. We do so through record sealing, expungement for human trafficking survivors, Certificates of Qualification for Employment (CQEs), and other forms of advocacy.

The quickest and most accessible solution to the barriers caused by criminal records is record sealing – hiding the records from most background checks. The problem is that everyone does not qualify to clear their background check and in certain fields, even sealed records are still accessible – meaning that there are citizens who live with the shame and collateral consequences of their criminal records for decades. What does it say about our justice system’s priority for redemption when there are people who have completely transformed themselves but are unable to find good employment or housing, and left unable to support themselves and their families?

Without creating avenues for everyone to eventually be free of the consequences of their criminal records, we do not have a criminal justice system based on second chances, rehabilitation, or transformation.

We have a criminal justice system that operates to push marginalized people further into the margins.

April is Second Chance Month. Our mistakes should not dictate how we live the rest of our lives. I hope that you will reflect on the possibility of a country where people who have been to jail or prison can transform themselves and accomplish whatever they want in life.

Here are some things you can do to make a:

  • Volunteer and/or make donations to organizations who work with people who are impacted by the criminal justice system.

  • Assist people who have difficulty getting online who want access to information about their own cases and options for record sealing through OJPC and the Courts.

  • Support and educate people about Second Chance hiring at your place of employment and support businesses and companies who hire ex-offenders.

  • Speak out against disproportionate and excessive policing, charging, and incarceration and support progressive officials who are committed to criminal justice reform so that citizens do not unnecessarily obtain a criminal record in the first place.
  • If you have a criminal record, please contact us at secondchance@ohiojpc.org to see how we may be able to help you remove the barriers you face. Keep documentation of your transformative journey, such as educational degrees, certificates, and letters of support to prepare to apply for relief.

I don’t remember the name of the boy I interviewed that summer, but I will never forget his story. His story stuck with me because I wanted so badly to help him change his situation. I did not want to live in a place where we tell a 15-year-old boy that his genuine attempts to improve his life after committing a crime were not important. He is one of the reasons I decided that I would go to law school with the intention to represent people who could not afford an attorney. 

Maya Angelou said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I hope that as a community, we commit to helping our neighbors do better, and offering them second chances to do so.