Ohio Law Aims to Remove the Stigma of Incarceration
Leonard Harris was kicked out of his house as an unruly teenager. He then started running with gangs at the age of 15, and soon discovered that he had business skills. It was the beginning of his career as a drug trafficker.
LEONARD HARRIS: You get into that lifestyle, if you’re doing good, people just steadily throw stuff at you. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of that, because every time you turn around you’re moving up so quick.
Until he was busted in 2006 and sentenced to six years in the Allen Correctional facility at Lima. From the moment he went into the medium security prison, Harris says he was focused on getting out. He didn’t mix with the general population, choosing to spend his time in the prison library, exploring any legal options to reduce his sentence. He also enrolled in classes that earned him an Associate’s degree in Business. He became a model prisoner, eventually getting released five months early. He thought he was set for a new life, but the transition back into the world outside the razor wire was tough.
LEONARD HARRIS: After doing that many years, I almost felt sick, everything hit me so hard.
He had no place to stay, he had no clothes, no phone, even the way you apply for a job had changed --- you filled out the form on-line. And, there was the inevitable question on that form that led to numerous rejections by prospective employers: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
LEONARD HARRIS: It was very frustrating.
Despite having paid his debt to society, Harris found that his drug conviction continued to haunt him. State Senator Shirley Smith says she’s heard similar stories for years.
SHIRLEY SMITH: For those people who could not get a job, could not go to school, could not get public housing, it was just like a life sentence, even after they had served their time.
That was the impetus for Senate Bill 337, which Smith co-authored and Governor Kasich signed, last year. The new law allows a former convict to keep certain low-level felonies private --- in legal parlance, those offenses are “expunged” from the public record. Those like Leonard Harris, with more serious convictions, but who have demonstrated an effort to reform their lives, can apply for the new “Certificate of Qualification for Employment” or “CQE” --- a state certificate vouching for their rehabilitation. Not only does the CQE afford an ex-offender the backing of the state, says Shirley Smith, it also shields the employer from any lawsuits that could arise.
SHIRLEY SMITH: Employers were very nervous about hiring people with records, because they thought they would have to take the liability if something happened on the job. Now, they don’t have to worry about that, because now it protects them.
That sounds good to Brandon Chrostowski, who plans to open a restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Square next month, staffed entirely by former felons.
BRANDON CHROSTOWSKI: The goal is to give somebody a fair second shot.
Chrostowski knows about second shots. As a teenager in Detroit, he ran with a tough crowd.
BRANDON CHROSTOWSKI: From selling dope, to getting in fights, and then, one night, everything went wrong, we fled from the police, and the next day, seven US Marshals at the door.
He didn’t do jail time, thanks to a sympathetic judge, and Chrostowski says he now devotes himself to helping former felons re-enter society. He runs a six-month training program for ex-offenders, building skills ranging from being a waiter, to putting on the chef’s hat. Chrostowski realizes that he’s probably in the minority when it comes to embracing ex-convicts as workers.
BRANDON CHROSTOWSKI: When you’re looking at hiring an employee, you want to take your best odds possible --- you want to bet on the safest horse, that’s going to get you across the finish line, in the safest and most profitable way.
Earlier this year, the job coaching agency Towards Employment, helped Leonard Harris land a job at a local produce packing operation where he‘s already had a promotion and is on tap to get advanced training in Chicago. The downside is that he’s working in a 40 degree refrigerated room all day. But, he has bigger dreams, if he can only get out from under the shadow of his past.
LEONARD HARRIS: My offense is such that, for example, I like real estate. As it stands right now, I can’t get a real estate license.
But, he’s heading back to the law books to see if he’s eligible for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment. Until recently, a criminal record prevented ex-offenders from getting a state license, but now licensing agencies can make judgment calls about an applicant’s fitness to hold a job. Shirley Smith hopes that CQEs and expungement proceedings will release thousands of former felons from the stigma of their crimes.
SHIRLEY SMITH: I’m not saying that I condone those kinds of behaviors. What I’m saying is, once that person gets help, then that person at least should be allowed to have an opportunity or a second chance.