Second Chances Are a Priority

Local attorney pushes for a shift in helping prisoners return to society

For the first time ever, more than one in every 100 U.S. citizens is incarcerated in either jail or prison, a recent study revealed.

Even if you’re not troubled by that statistic on ethical or moral grounds, consider the public cost: The burgeoning number of people locked up costs state governments about $50 billion annually, along with another $5 billion annually spent by the federal government, according to the 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States.

With expenses like that, it’s small wonder that many state governments are facing large deficits and on the verge of bankruptcy.

Perhaps the biggest impact on society, however, occurs when offenders have served their time and are released back onto the streets. About 650,000 people are released from prison each year in the United States.

When many ex-felons try to find a job, their options are extremely limited.

Because most employers are reluctant to hire someone with a criminal record — even if it’s been years since the violation or they’ve since earned a degree — usually they’re stuck with the lowest-paying jobs such as manual labor or working in a fast-food restaurant, making it difficult if not impossible to support a family or pay child support on their paychecks. Often, a sense of desperation leads offenders back to a life of crime.

Stephen JohnsonGrove is working to break that vicious cycle.

JohnsonGrove, an attorney, works at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), a nonprofit law office that tries to make statewide reforms to the criminal justice system. Among its goals is promoting the rehabilitation of incarcerated people and making changes to help them reintegrate more successfully into the community, as well as ending racial disparities in sentencing.

JohnsonGrove works on OJPC’s “Second Chance Project,” which tries to remove legal barriers to the successful reentry of ex-offenders into the outside world.

Politicians, even conservative ones, are viewing the type of work that OJPC does more favorably nowadays, JohnsonGrove says. There’s a growing realization that tougher sentencing guidelines aren’t the most effective way to deal with some crime.

“There’s been a definite shift,” he says. “We’re right on the cusp of a change from the nonsense of ‘get tough on crime.’ For the past three or four decades, it’s been an unending march of ratcheting up the punishment. It doesn’t work. We’re not only bankrupting ourselves, but we’re no safer.”

Overall, more than 2.3 million are incarcerated in the United States, a much higher percentage than in other nations, including the more populous China, Pew found.

OJPC practices what is called a “get smart on crime” approach that focuses on how to effectively deal with offenders while incarcerated, alternatives to incarceration when appropriate and what to do with offenders once they’ve served their sentence.

One of JohnsonGrove’s tasks is trying to change Ohio’s expungement laws. Expungement allows people convicted of certain crimes, such as misdemeanor theft, to seal their records, which removes the crime from background records of the type many employers check when hiring new workers.

Certain crimes are nonexpungable, such as ones involving sex or violence.

But Ohio’s expungement laws have some restrictions that are impractical, reform advocates say. Chief among them is a “first offender” clause that prohibits a person with more than one offense from sealing his or her record.

That means, for example, if a person had two shoplifting convictions when he was 18 but had no subsequent convictions since then, they can’t be expunged no matter how much time has passed, even decades.

“The current rules are very strict: first-time nonviolent offenders only,” JohnsonGrove says. “If you have more than one offense, you’re out of luck.

“I have so many people coming to me looking for advice on expungement who have more than one conviction. They go away with discouragement when we tell them what the rules are. I’ve seen hundreds of people who are frustrated, some who walk away in tears.”

JohnsonGrove is part of a working group that’s looking at methods to “gently expand” the rules and is examining different models from other states. Participants include the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, state corrections officials, community groups and State Sen. Shirley A. Smith (D-Cleveland).

Also, he’s working with clergy and other groups to lobby Cincinnati city government into changing its civil service rules and abolish a policy that amounts to a de facto ban on hiring ex-felons. Municipal government employs about 6,000 people and often has vacancies for jobs at all skill levels.

A prominent incident publicized by the OJPC involves the Civil Service Commission’s refusal to hire Gene Mays in 2006 based on two drug-abuse felonies, which were then 13 and 19 years old.

The commission knew Mays had been clean for 10 years, was ranked No. 1 for all five years of his union apprenticeship and had favorable recommendations from his supervisors, but it didn’t matter.

The commission’s response to his application: “Mr. Mays has a couple felony convictions on his record, and could therefore not be hired for city employment.”

Mayor Mark Mallory has downplayed the policy, stating the city does hire some ex-offenders. But JohnsonGrove notes the few instances mostly involve placing them in seasonal temporary jobs with the Parks Department and the Sanitation Department, which have meager pay and no longevity.

Further, although the text of the city’s policy states the commission “may refuse” to hire ex-felons instead of “shall refuse,” it’s often cited in rejecting otherwise qualified applicants.

“The rules don’t say it’s a blanket ban but, in practice, it’s been that,” he says. “It’s disappointing that the mayor is splitting hairs. Rather than have an open and honest dialogue on it, he’s trying to kill the issue.”

Regardless, the OJPC, the AMOS Project and other groups have been successful in getting the city’s three civil service commissioners to agree to discuss the issue in coming weeks.

During the five years since he joined OJPC, JohnsonGrove has held numerous legal clinics where he helps ex-offenders deal with items like parole and child support issues and determines whether they’re eligible for expungement. During that time, he estimates he’s seen about 2,500 clients.

JohnsonGrove, 34, lives in Norwood with his wife and children. A Philadelphia native, he first got involved in community activism there, inspired by his pastor, Bart Campolo (son of Tony Campolo, spiritual adviser to President Clinton). Ironically, the younger Campolo also now lives in Cincinnati.

After graduating from law school in 2001, JohnsonGrove received an Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship to work with homeless veterans in Philadelphia. While there, he was arrested for criminal trespassing while protesting the launch of the Iraq War.

“I guess you could say I’m an ex-offender, too,” he says. “I’ve been really inspired by my faith community, and I love the work that I do."

Public Eye Staff Picks | Public Eye Reader Picks | Back to "Best of Cincinnati" Home Page

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.