FOX19 Investigates: New law makes jobs easier to find for convicted felons

Published: Feb. 22, 2013 at 4:40 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2013 at 12:11 PM EST
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(FOX19) - It's a problem that's been around for decades; people with criminal records can't get jobs.

"You've got two people applying for the same job, one's got a criminal record, one doesn't, who's going to get hired?" asks Erin Rosen. She's a West Chester attorney in the law firm of Lyons & Lyons who handles a form of expungements. "It's going to be the person without the criminal record. This is trying to even the playing field for these people."

Rosen is a former magistrate and saw the problem first-hand in her courtroom, people making small mistakes and not being able to move on with their life.

"I can't get a job because I have this marijuana possession," she recalls people saying. "I have this theft, you know, I stole a toothbrush when I was 19 from whatever drugstore, and it's still on my record."

Here's the way it used to work.  If you had two convictions, even if one wasn't a criminal offense, like say a DUI or leaving the scene of an accident, neither could be sealed. They stayed on your record, literally, forever. It followed you around like a dark shadow that you can't get rid of.

"So many people weren't eligible before, so someone who got a petty theft when they were 19 and then got a DUI when they were 30," Rosen surmises, "Now they're 40 and they can't get that theft sealed from when they were 19 because they had the DUI."

It could also affect other parts of convicts' lives. "The background checks can go for housing, financial aid when you're applying for college," adds Rosen. "Your criminal history has a big impact on your life."

But that changed in September when lawmakers passed a new law. "I think there was a big push from the Ohio General Assembly to expand the law," she says. "They opened the door just a little bit, they cracked the door just a little more, let people become eligible to have those records sealed because so many didn't qualify."

Sealed, but not expunged. The difference is simple. When a record's sealed, it's removed from public access at the courthouse, and anyone doing a background check for employment or housing or otherwise won't be able to find it. However, if you get in trouble again, law enforcement can call it up immediately, and then it will come back to haunt you, again. "In Ohio, the criminal records are actually sealed," Rosen explains. "Criminal background checks would not get it, but law enforcement would have access to it, and certain government agencies will have access to it."

That's records which are "sealed." When a record's "expunged," no one can find it, not even law enforcement. However, expungments almost never happen. "If you're convicted of certain offenses, you obviously can't be around children," said Rosen. "You can't be a teacher. A classic example would be sex offenders. Sex offenses can't ever be sealed."

So, what are the new guidelines? It's simple. A person can have two convictions, no more. What if they have three small, insignificant misdemeanors? No. Two's the limit. What if they have a misdemeanor and a felony conviction? Yes. That can be sealed. So, in that case, what kind of felonies are we talking about that someone can be convicted of but can now get rid of so that no one else finds out about it?

"Possession of drugs that are felony level," Rosen explains. "Other crimes like possession of cocaine, felony theft, and receiving stolen property. Anything where there's not a victim, so to speak, victim-less crimes," she added. "It's probably easier for me to say the kinds of offenses that cannot be sealed, such as murder, sex offenses, crimes of violence, felonious assault, burglary, robbery."

"Very rarely is discretion involved. Usually it's very black and white; either a person is eligible or they're not eligible," says Scott Heenan, who is the assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County who handles these cases. Even though by the nature of his job he's against people with criminal records, he has seen the advantage to this new law first hand. "A lot of times you'd have somebody who wasn't able to get a job or is losing their job because they had a conviction for something minor sometimes as far as 20 or 30 years ago, and they weren't able to get rid of that, and because of that, jobs that they were at for a long time, especially banking jobs. If a bank were to buy a bank up, suddenly they weren't able to keep that person on even though they hadn't done anything wrong in 30 years. They had to let that person go."

"Statistics show that when they're employed, they have a purpose, and they're less likely to re-offend," interjects Rosen. "It's all about trying to reduce the number of offenders who go back to prison, getting them employed, and keeping them from going back to their old ways that got them in trouble in the first place."

FOX19 spoke to some people who hire employees. None of them wanted to talk about it with a  camera pointed at them for obvious reasons. They said they are not happy about this new law and not because of the law itself, but because it's a law that, they say, is designed to deceive employers. They said they'd rather know up front if someone's had a shady past, and then they can make their own decision about it based on all the facts.

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