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Ohio bill would make it easier to seal non-violent criminal records, but advocates want it expanded

Megan Henry, Ohio Capital Journal,

A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers are trying to make it easier to get non-violent criminal records sealed to help formerly incarcerated Ohioans get hired, but advocates say that’s not enough.  

Reps. Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, and Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, introduced the Getting Rehabilitated Ohioans Working (GROW) Act earlier this year. House Bill 460 would set up a process for courts to allow certain criminal records to be automatically sealed. There are about 1,071,000 Ohioans whose records could be sealed if the bill passed.

“This piece of legislation is about reforming and redeeming individuals to be a part of society by removing barriers to employment for individuals with certain criminal records, while also providing crucial protections for employers,” Hillyer said in his testimony.

Under the bill, a criminal record that has been sealed or expunged can not be considered as evidence against an employer in a negligent hiring or negligent supervision case.

“By providing immunity to employers, we incentivize the hiring of individuals in need of a second chance, ultimately benefiting both employers and our communities,” Hillyer said.  

An estimated one in 11 Ohio adults is living with a felony conviction and one in three has a criminal record of some kind, according to a 2018 Policy Matters Ohio study.

HB 460 does not expand the type of criminal records that are eligible for sealing, but would simplify the record sealing process.

Fred Ward, the statewide director for Building Freedom Ohio, said the GROW Act is a step in the right direction, but wants to see the bill expanded to seal records of violent crimes. He was incarcerated from 1989-2000 on a felony assault conviction and he said he is still dealing with collateral sanctions — even though he has no incidents since being released from prison.

“We need more people like me to be set free from the burden of a criminal record that keeps them from having a full life,” Ward said in a statement. “That includes people like me who have been convicted of violent crime.”

How would the bill work?

Under the bill, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation would identify criminal records that would be eligible for automatic sealing and send them to the corresponding county prosecutor who has 45 days to object. If neither the prosecuting attorney or BCII has any opposition, then a criminal record would be sealed.

This process would start three years after the bill was signed into law and take place every month.

“This balanced approach ensures that public safety concerns are addressed while still prioritizing the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals into the workforce,” Hillyer said.

This bill would benefit Legal Aid of Southeast and Central Ohio’s clients.

“I have seen first-hand how many of my clients are denied jobs and housing because of the volume of their criminal history, regardless of the types of offenses or how long ago they occurred,” Sierra Cooper, one of their attorneys,  said in her testimony.

She said the bill could be stronger if it alerted people their records have been sealed.

“It is essential that the person whose records have been sealed receive actual notice of the seal, preferably in the form of an entry from the court, in order to fully benefit from the process,” she said.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce supports the bill — saying it would help address Ohio’s workforce challenges.

“The adoption of second chance hiring provisions is a part of building a more vibrant economy in Ohio because it helps all Ohioans, even those who have a criminal history, participate in the workforce and contribute to the state’s economic growth,” Kevin Shimp, testifying on behalf of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said in his testimony.

How does sealing criminal records currently work in Ohio?

Ohio does have procedures in place for sealing criminal records for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Someone must apply to the sentencing court to have their record sealed and a then hearing with a judge takes place who ultimately determines what happens with the record.   

“This process is time intensive and often requires hiring a lawyer to assist with the record sealing application and court hearing,” Shimp said in his testimony. “Due to these barriers, countless Ohioans who are eligible to have a sealed record do not pursue it.”

JBM Packaging

JBM Packaging, a manufacturing company in Lebanon, created a second chance program for formerly incarcerated folks in 2016. Since then, they have hired more than 116 fair chance employees for six months or more, said Amanda Hall, a fair chance employee at JBM, during a recent webinar about reentry in the Ohio workforce.

“We treat everybody on a case by case basis,” she said. “We want to hear you out, we don’t judge you for your past, we judge you for who you are today, and what you’ve done on your reentry journey or transformation.”

Hall remembers wondering who was going to hire her due to her previous felonies, but then JBM came into Ohio Reformatory for Women and shared how they hire people who have felonies.

“It just blew me away,” she said.

JBM hired Hall in 2019 and she has been internally promoted.

“It makes everything that I’ve been through worth it, because now I get to use it for the greater good,” Hall said.

Of their 142 current employees, 41 of them are through the fair chance program, Hall said.

“If you don’t have a job, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to live a successful life that is free of crime,” she said. “People don’t have a job, they’ll just go back to what they’re used to doing, which will most likely lead them back to prison.”

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the past five years reporting in Ohio on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime. She previously worked at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network. Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on X.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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