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Ohio State and community partners developing project to seal criminal records

Opportunity Port is Ohio State’s finalist in Alliance for the American Dream challenge

Criminal records are as common as college degrees, but the consequences are far-reaching and detrimental to the ability to achieve economic and social prosperity – the American dream.

The Ohio State University has teamed up with the City of Columbus and Legal Aid Society on “Opportunity Port,” a project to empower those with criminal records to begin the record sealing process. The project is being developed as the university’s finalist in the Alliance for the American Dream competition.

Opportunity Port will be an online and mobile-friendly platform to help those with criminal records easily get help to seal those records. Starting in Franklin County, Opportunity Port plans to increase the number of record-sealing applications submitted from 1,500 in 2019 to 15,000 by 2022.

The Opportunity Port project can help many people access their rights and eliminate barriers, according to Hannah Miller, Opportunity Port team lead and legislative assistant with the City of Columbus and the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

“Discriminatory enforcement and policies in the criminal justice system account for the disproportionate number of Black and Brown residents with criminal records," said Miller. "The consequences of that record persist – landlords won’t rent to you, the government won’t lend you money for college and most employers won’t hire you. It's a vicious cycle that exacerbates racial inequality.”

Miller says filing a record-sealing application is complicated and requires information and skills that many citizens do not possess. And even though sealing records results in higher wages, housing security and increased economic productivity, fewer than 7 percent of those eligible apply.

Miller works for Columbus City Council member Rob Dorans, who says the Opportunity Port project can help fill a tremendous need in the community.

“In early 2019, I volunteered at a Clean Slate Clinic, and when I showed up there were hundreds of prospective clients, rather than our typical few dozen,” said Dorans. “Apparently, the invite for the clinic went viral on Facebook and folks packed the basement of the Legal Aid office trying to get help. Right there I knew there had be a better way to get people in the pipeline for record sealing.

“That’s when the idea for Opportunity Port was born and when I joined Columbus City Council a few months later I began working with local leaders and policy experts about how we could create something here in Columbus to meet the need of the community and hopefully help folks move beyond their past mistakes.”

Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is also a partner in the project. Kyle Strickland, senior legal adviser at the Kirwan Institute, says initiatives are needed to make it easier and not harder to for people to reenter society.

The Kirwan Institute will conduct research and evaluation on the project.

When people use the app, they’re going to plug in their information and we’ll track key factors like wages, employment status and other measures of socioeconomic health, before and after they seal their record,” said Strickland. “We’ll see if the intervention of Opportunity Port has made a difference.”

Ohio State is one of four public universities participating in The Alliance for the American Dream, a collaboration created by Schmidt Futures aimed at generating innovative ideas to bolster the middle class. Other partner universities are Arizona State and the universities of Utah and Wisconsin.

Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative, founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, that finds exceptional people and helps them do more for others together. The organization knits talent into networks, bet on the most promising ideas through diverse forms of competition and support, and equip people to scale through partners and modern tools.

Over the next two months, the finalists from each university will continue to refine their proposals. They will present their projects to Schmidt Futures on Sept. 10. 

Teams of community members and Ohio State faculty began working on developing proposals for the competition in late 2019. The ideas were presented during ‘The Evening of Big Ideas,” in January. In addition to Opportunity Port, the other Ohio State semi-finalists selected to move forward after the January presentations included “119 Power to the Patient” and “Readyskill”.

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