12:30 PM

Central Ohio team succeeds at American Dream competition

Online portal will speed the process of sealing criminal records and improve opportunity for thousands

A project to help eligible central Ohioans seal their criminal records and improve their lives has been provisionally awarded $500,000 in the 2020 Alliance for the American Dream competition sponsored by Schmidt Futures.

Columbus City Council, Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Smart Columbus and Buckeye Interactive developed the Opportunity Port project. The online portal combines technology and legal expertise to guide eligible people through the application process.

“We’re honored that Schmidt Futures has recognized this innovative community collaboration, which will help individuals pursue a better life after a criminal conviction,” said Bruce A. McPheron, Ohio State’s executive vice president and provost. “And we’re especially proud of the contribution that our Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is making as the project’s principal research partner.”

Opportunity Port was developed to make better use of a provision in Ohio law that allows people convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies to petition the courts to have their criminal records removed from public view. But the application process is vastly underused and can be confusing, said Hannah Miller, Opportunity Port team lead and legislative assistant to Councilmember Rob Dorans. In 2019, for example, fewer than 2,000 of approximately 10,000 eligible individuals applied.

"A criminal charge or conviction can impact someone's ability to secure housing and employment,” Dorans said. “Opportunity Port fills a vital communication gap between individuals with records and the legal resources they need to seal those records so that they can move forward in life. I'm grateful to Schmidt Futures and the Alliance for the American Dream for helping us make Opportunity Port a reality."

When Schmidt Futures created the Alliance for the American Dream in 2018, Ohio State, Arizona State and the universities of Utah and Wisconsin were selected to anchor community teams charged with finding innovative solutions that expand and strengthen America’s middle class. Ohio State helped develop the Power of Home project in 2018 to support first-time homebuyers.

For the 2020 competition, Opportunity Port was the local finalist. On Sept. 10, the Opportunity Port team and other alliance members pitched their proposals virtually to Eric and Wendy Schmidt in the final round of competition.

Depending on their crime, individuals can apply for record-sealing as soon as one to three years after completing their sentences, including probation, and paying all outstanding fines. The effect of record-sealing on a person’s earning potential can be dramatic. In Michigan, for example, residents whose applications for record-sealing were granted earned 25% more within a year and were less likely to reoffend.

“Far too many of our communities have been left behind by a broken criminal justice system that keeps people trapped in a cycle of running into one barrier after the next,” said Kyle Strickland, senior legal analyst at the Kirwin Institute. “Opportunity Port will help remove barriers in the complicated record-sealing process and open more doors for our residents and families in need of support."

Opportunity Port will help a user complete a five-minute intake form that automatically captures contact and court case information. It then sends the application to a legal aid organization of the user’s choosing to conduct legal review. Afterward, the user electronically signs the application and Opportunity Port submits it to the appropriate clerk of courts on the user’s behalf. The decision to seal a person’s criminal records is ultimately made by the judge and prosecutor in the case.

The Opportunity Port team expects to have the portal available for public use by early 2021 and is currently developing expansion plans.

Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative, founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, that finds exceptional people and helps them do more for others together. Schmidt Futures uses tools including gifts, grants, investments and startup activity for charitable, educational and commercial efforts with a public purpose. The initiative connects the efforts of various charitable and non-charitable entities and makes diverse types of capital available to the efforts it supports.

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