The next day we headed to the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati to observe some expungement hearings and see what we could find out about records access and petition filing in the clerk’s office.
The first hearing we observed was in Courtroom 270, with Judge Fannon Rucker presiding. The applicant was petitioning to have two minor drug possession charges on his record sealed. When we arrived at the courtroom, we looked at the electronic schedule posted at the courtroom door and were surprised to see that there were 70 cases scheduled for 9am, with only 90 minutes until a jury trial scheduled at 10:30, working out to slightly over a minute per case!
When the judge arrived in the courtroom, he began working through the hearings with astonishing speed and efficiency, granting continuances and accepting pleas. When the expungement case came up, the petitioner had only about 20 seconds to tell the judge about how he had gotten a professional certification and needed to get his record sealed in order to get a job. With no objections from the prosecutor, the expungement was granted and the hearing was over in less than 1 minute.
The other expungement hearing we observed, in a different courtroom, did not go as well for the applicant, who owed unpaid court fines and fees on one of the cases. The judge denied the petition, stating “an outstanding balance on one means no expungements on any.” Unfortunately, this illustrates a common catch-22 that record clearance applicants find themselves in: they can’t get a job because of their criminal record, but they can’t clear their record until they pay their outstanding court fees, which they can’t afford to pay because they don’t have a job!
After observing the hearings, we made our way to the clerk’s office, asking where we would go to file expungement paperwork. Eventually, we were directed to a small windowless office at the back of the clerk’s office, with a sign on the door reading “Expungements”. Wandering in, we met Denise Burks-Scott, a tireless public servant who has been handling expungement filings for 22 years! She goes to great lengths to help applicants who come to the Hamilton County Courthouse for felony expungements, letting them know how to fill out the paperwork, double checking their eligibility, and setting expectations about the process and outcomes. “I see the struggle every day,” Denise told us, referring to applicants who come to her distraught because their criminal records are holding them back from critical opportunities. She tries her best to help, processing on average 30–45 applications per month, but when people aren’t eligible for expungement, she directs them to another office where they can file applications for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment, or CQE.
The CQE is another option for lifting barriers to employment and professional licensing for people who do not qualify for record sealing in Ohio. The CQE allows employers to hire candidates with criminal records that would otherwise be prohibited, and protects the employer from negligent hiring lawsuits. Since it was introduced in 2012, around 750 CQEs have been granted across the state, and only 4 have been revoked due to a subsequent felony conviction. One recent study found that having a CQE made an applicant more than 3 times more likely to be offered a job interview!
The final stop on our trip was Dayton, OH, where we met with the Code for Dayton volunteer brigade, who inspired us with their laser-like focus on trying to help their local Dayton community grappling with “rust belt woes.” We also met with Community Action Partnership, an organization that provides a variety of services in the greater Dayton area, including a newly-launched legal aid clinic. We learned a lot from CAP about their approach to providing services. We learned the CAP encourages expungement applicants to get a state background check, which provides all their case information in a consistent format, instead of going courthouse to courthouse to gather their records for each case. The downside is that the state background check costs $35 and has a wait time of up to 2 weeks. Another great service that CAP provides is financial assistance for applicants who are unable to pay their outstanding court costs, blocking them from completing the expungement process.
We finished our trip energized by the amazing work we witnessed from people on the front lines helping Ohio residents with record expungement. Now we are taking what we’ve learned and trying to figure out how we can use technology to help amplify and scale the work of local providers to make record clearance accessible to all eligible Ohio residents.