Real-Time Takes: GROW Act – Collateral Sanctions: Record Sealing

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Real-Time Takes

A Policy Blogcast

GROW ACT - Collateral Sanctions: Record Sealing

Interview with Jane Doe
This TE Alumni has opted to remain anonymous for this article.

July 11, 2024

Interview and article by Gabrielle Fortin

For nearly a decade, Jane Doe made “bad decisions, with bad people, in bad places”. She was convicted with a total of three fifth (5th) degree felony charges for Drug Possession and one third (3rd) degree felony for Failure to Comply. Her offenses spanned three different counties:

Cuyahoga (2015), Lake (2017) and Richland (2018). Jane Doe completed each of her sentences: nine months in prison and multiple years of community control sanction; along with a suspended driver’s license and the various fees and fines associated with her cases.

For Jane and millions like her, having a record meant serving a “second sentence”; one without a timeline or clear path to redemption. Despite fulfilling her legal obligations, Jane Doe was subjected to a variety of collateral consequences that made leading a normal life cumbersome and discouraging. I sat down with Jane Doe and listened to her experience with the complicated and costly 10-month process she navigated to get her record sealed.

In 2019, Jane Doe graduated from Towards Employment’s Networks4Success four-week job- readiness program and was hired in the Informational Technology (IT) field. She was fortunate enough to find a second-chance employer and has worked with them for the past four years. In hopes of advancing into a position with more responsibility, she started exploring new opportunities. After undergoing multiple interview processes, Jane was selected for a position that started at $15,000 more than her current position. She accepted the offer, but the company withdrew it after conducting a criminal background check.

She knew it was time to get her record sealed. Losing out on $15,000 wasn’t her only motivator; her son would often ask her to come and read to his kindergarten class. Unfortunately, her record kept her from doing so. “Someday soon, buddy” was all Jane could tell him. Having a record made affording a child even more difficult; high-paying jobs were hard to come by, especially given the gap in her resume, and finding affordable housing that would accept a tenant with multiple felonies was just as rare. It was time to take matters into her own hands.

Before her convictions, Jane had been a paralegal, where she learned to read and write legal documents and gained experience navigating the court system. This proved to be crucial when she found herself on the other end of the criminal justice system. As a TE graduate, she had access to TE’s free legal services, which offset the lack of guidance provided by the courts. Jane and the TE attorney collaborated with each other to write and revise the motions to ensure they were okay to submit. She filed her own motions, represented herself in court, and independently researched the convoluted steps. Because her cases spanned three distinct court systems, the sealing processes varied; this added an additional challenge to an already complicated situation.

It has been three months since Jane successfully sealed her record, but it wasn’t easy. If it wasn’t for her legal experience and tenacious spirit, Jane explained that she “would’ve been completely discouraged… they [the courts] don’t give you any sort of direction or help”.

Jane told me her story, county-by-county: in Lake County she had to go to court twice. At the first hearing, she was informed that she owed $600 in court fees (in addition to the $50 filing fee) and therefore couldn’t get her record sealed. This is just one example of how overly complicated and frustrating the record sealing process is. Before that hearing, Jane carefully went through her docket and even called the court multiple times to confirm everything was in order; yet she was never informed of the outstanding balance. It took her six months to save the money; she finally scheduled another court date, and that case was officially sealed.

In another instance, after paying a $50 filing fee, Richland County denied her first motion; incorrectly claiming that she hadn’t completed her community control requirements. She explained that “if it wasn’t for me having the paperwork from 5-6 years ago, going back and saying ‘no, you guys are wrong’” then she would never have prevailed. Eventually the court remedied its mistake and scheduled a hearing where the case was sealed.

Cuyahoga was the last case on her record. She paid their $50 filing fee and then waited; and waited. Throughout four months of radio silence, she left six unacknowledged messages with the Cuyahoga bailiff. She checked her docket daily in hopes of an update- but courts don’t provide updates on the process. Six months later she received a letter notifying her that her record had been sealed.

Jane spent nearly a decade paying court fees, was barred from jobs she was qualified for- that would support her and her son- and was denied affordable housing. She was often looked down upon by the court employees. They were “hard to trust” and treated her “like a criminal” even though she was just trying her best to improve her and her child’s life. “I felt so limited, telling myself ‘Well, you’re stuck, this is your life… you’ll always be broke, always be a felon, always be on the bottom.’” I asked how she felt now that her record was sealed. With a weight lifted off her shoulders, she is finally able to dream, and is planning on venturing into cyber security, a formerly unattainable goal. It is not surprising, however, that she still has a deep distrust of the system.

Despite all the barriers she overcame, Jane is actually more fortunate than the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans currently serving their “second sentence.” Imagine if she didn’t have experience working in the legal field; even with access to TE’s free legal services, the process was still onerous. Imagine if she didn’t have a car to drive hours to Richland and Lake County.

What if she couldn’t afford to pay the various fees- the applications, the $600 outstanding balance, her original court fees- or if she couldn’t afford to take those three days off work?

The current system labels people with records who have served their time and quite literally paid their dues, as second-class citizens. It leaves people behind, telling them they don’t deserve employment opportunities and basic civil liberties. Living in a system that is stacked against you, unable to control your fate is exhausting. Many people give up, and I don’t blame them. The system should support rather than shame individuals who have reformed their ways.

Employment opportunities should be expanded, and court fees should be limited. Furthermore, Ohio should adopt automatic record sealing legislation, such as HB460 recently introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives. These steps would improve the lives of millions of Americans, who despite changing their ways and doing everything they can to lead a full life, are still haunted by their past.

These resources can help individuals with sealing their record:

About the Author

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Gabrielle Fortin (she/her) is Towards Employment’s Summer 2024 Cleveland Foundation Policy and Advocacy Intern. During her internship, she has been supporting TE’s 2022-2025 Policy Agenda with a focus on collateral sanctions. Some of her responsibilities include collaborating with community coalitions, tracking legislation (SB37, HB460, HB464) as well as researching and compiling data to advance TE policy initiatives. She has greatly enjoyed collecting and sharing individuals’ stories for advocacy purposes and is looking forward to continuing that work. Gabrielle attends Case Western Reserve University (c/o 2025) and majors in Political Science and International Studies, with minors in Public Policy, French, and Business Management.

Towards Employment

Policy & Advocacy

Towards Employment promotes economic mobility, focusing on those most impacted by systemic racism. We educate and advocate for a more equitable workforce system where racial income gaps have been eliminated and everyone has access to family sustaining wages and quality jobs.

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