Forgive and Forget?

The push to keep criminal records from employers.

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Kelly Edwards wishes her robbery conviction would disappear. - Walter  Novak
Kelly Edwards wishes her robbery conviction would disappear.
Kelly Edwards could be a model for reformed felons. The single mother is a machine operator at Interlake Stamping and studies medical-lab technology at Tri-C. Her goal is to someday become a crime-scene investigator and earn enough to send her six-year-old son to private school.

In the meantime, she pays $500 a month for a sparse two-bedroom on the West Side and relies on food stamps to buy groceries.

On Sundays, she goes to church, where she prays for a new state law that would make her robbery conviction disappear. "I just want another chance," says Edwards, whose magenta hair makes her look more college student than felon.

Four years ago, Edwards was convicted of robbery. She stole a few checks from an ex-employer's desk and tried to cash them, she says. Her criminal record prevents her from getting a job as a nurse's aide.

She desperately wants her record sealed from public view. But since robbery is considered a violent crime, she's not eligible under Ohio law.

More than 5,000 ex-cons return to Cuyahoga County every year. Though the prison system advertises rehabilitation, it's not very good at it. Within three years of release, roughly one-third of Ohio's criminals will be behind bars again. At least part of that stems from lack of work. A felony conviction is the scarlet letter for job-seekers.

"We expect people to come out of prison and go straight," says Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney for the U.S. Justice Department. "And yet we don't want to hire people. We don't want them around."

It's particularly rough in Ohio, where a felony can even keep you from getting a barber's license.

So state Representative Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland) has proposed a bill that would allow ex-cons with multiple convictions to apply to get their records sealed if they've stayed clean for seven years. Only those convicted of kidnapping, murder, or sex crimes would be excluded from the program.

"It's a jobs bill," says Reverend Mark Olds, who helped craft the legislation. "What people need is opportunity."

Hundreds of people have attended forums on the bill over the past few months, and they rallied in Columbus last week. Despite the tough-on-crime mantra of the times, the bill has gained surprising support among judges. Three -- including Municipal Court Presiding Judge Larry Jones -- have already stumped for the bill.

"Sometimes we just want to see the law forgive, with reason," says Republican Judge Joan Synenberg. "This is not intended to conceal the records of people who pose a threat."

That, however, is open to debate. A building owner, for example, might want to know whether she's hiring a former burglar as her new apartment manager. A trucking company might be curious about a billing-clerk applicant with a history of forging checks. Felons put themselves in this situation, critics argue. Why should others take unknowing risks for their rehabilitation?

"If you have two counts of embezzlement and you're trying to work at a bank, that's something they need to know about," says state Representative Jim Trakas (R-Independence).

He worries that violent criminals could hide their past and that seven years isn't long enough to prove one's been reformed. Today, only those convicted of one nonviolent crime -- either misdemeanor or felony -- can have their records sealed.

Under Smith's proposal, employers would be able to question people about sealed convictions only if the topic "bears a direct and substantial relationship to the position for which a person is being considered." Which means, for example, that an employer may never know that her new hire was once convicted of stalking and assaulting a co-worker.

"These are very serious crimes," says Trakas. "There are consequences for bad behavior. You've got that marked on your records for the rest of your life, and that should be that way."

Keeping records open also lets employers double-check an ex-con's assertions. Edwards, it seems, embodies the arguments both for and against Smith's bill. Though she dismisses her robbery conviction as punishment for a few stolen checks, the police report paints a more complicated picture.

Her former boss, Mauricio Orozco, told police he found her in his office, rummaging through the pockets of his jacket. A witness, Stacy Richardson, alleged that Edwards grabbed her by the neck and threw her into a wall before running from the building. Witnesses said that a man waiting in a car for Edwards pointed a gun at them.

Edwards disputes the report: There was no gun, and she pushed Orozco only because he grabbed her. Nonetheless, she pleaded guilty to robbery and served a few months in jail before doing probation and community service.

"I was just down and out," she says. "I was young. I didn't know no better."

Yet even Smith's bill wouldn't help her get some jobs. Police would still have access to records. So would organizations that care for children, the elderly, and the disabled. State law bars many such employers from hiring people convicted of crimes like theft and sexual assault.

The idea is to protect vulnerable patients, says Peter Van Runkle, president of the Ohio Health Care Association. But it means that people like Edwards can't be hired, even if they seem rehabilitated.

A better plan, Van Runkle says, would be to keep records open and let companies weigh their own risks. "Rather than us not even knowing about it, we would rather have the information, but essentially be able to waive it if a certain period of time has passed," he says.

Edwards is hoping that her ordeal ends soon. If her record prevents her from being a crime-scene investigator, she will pursue a job in the medical field. She's determined to make sure that her son has better opportunities than she did. "I just want to make a better life for him," she says.

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