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Justice Matters is WKSU’s reporting initiative examining Ohio's criminal enforcement system, its challenges and opportunities for reform

Ohio's expedited pardons provide a quicker path to a fresh start

LaSalle Harris.JPG
Kabir Bhatia
/
Ideastream Public Media
Akron resident LaSalle Harris received her pardon from the state of Ohio in 2020 on Christmas Eve. Today, she's a counselor for people with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Since 2019, Ohio has offered an expedited pardon program to ex-offenders. And while awareness of the program has been growing, many still wonder about the options for people who have paid their debt to society and are trying to make a fresh start.

On Christmas Eve, 2020, as the world wondered how many more holidays would be hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, LaSalle Harris of Akron received a letter which made her forget all about COVID-19.

“It was my full pardon. Wow, what a beautiful Christmas present.”

In the eyes of the state, Harris had been forgiven under Gov. Mike DeWine’s Expedited Pardon Program, established in 2019.

“I had over 23 felony convictions, a direct result of drinking and drugging and criminal activities.”

How does someone with that kind of background get a pardon? The process usually evokes an image of a politician – in their final hours in office – commuting or erasing the sentences of powerful friends. Andy Wilson is Senior Advisor for Criminal Justice Policy for Gov. DeWine. He says that stereotype simply doesn’t hold true for the new expedited process.

“When you look at the governor's philosophy on criminal justice policy, one of the things he believes passionately about is, when somebody has paid their debt to society -- and they've done their time, they've come out of prison or gotten off of probation -- and they have proved that they have learned their lesson and become productive members of society and the community, then we as a society need to forgive them,” Wilson said.

He says the expedited process for these ex-offenders is far easier than the standard process – which is overwhelmed by the number of applicants, regardless of how appropriate a pardon might be for them.

“They are sitting on long sentences for violent or sexually oriented offense. Yet they have the ability from their jail cell to apply for a pardon. Each one of those applications has to be investigated. It has to be fully worked up by the Parole Board and has to work its way through the process. So what happens is, the process gets jammed up with those type of pardons.”

Records search
The coronavirus pandemic hit just a few months after the expedited program began, making it difficult for candidates to get copies of old court records, schedule hearings, do research, and generally get things done. But as the world has started opening back up, the state has seen applications increase. DeWine’s deputy counsel, Sarah Ackman, says attorneys from the Ohio State and University of Akron law schools work to make the process quick and free.

“You get an expedited hearing date. And when you start your application process with the law school, there's an investigation phase that has to go on in the background -- with the Parole Board -- and they will simultaneously do the investigation while you're completing your packet once you've passed the initial screening. And that way, we're doing two things at once which makes getting them in front of the Parole Board a much quicker procedure so that you know we're taking years off of the process.”

At the University of Akron law school, Russ Nichols is director of the Inmate Assistance program, which serves as a kind of law library for Summit County inmates. He says state officials and the legislature have been laying the groundwork for the new pardon process for several years – such as in 2018, when they changed the requirements to seal a criminal record. Prior to that, anyone with two felony convictions was unable to get a Certificate of Qualified Employment, which lifts the sanctions that bar some ex-offenders from certain types of jobs.

“What we see often in the courts is those two separate felony cases can be within a week or two of each other [and] clearly related to someone's ongoing struggle with drugs or alcohol or perhaps a mental health episode. Which we know that someone can overcome. However, without those changes in the statute, they can't overcome that criminal record that it leaves them with.”

That’s certainly the case for LaSalle Harris.

IMG0273.jpg
Kabir Bhatia
/
Ideastream Public Media
Joann Sahl (left) and Russ Nichols, pictured in 2014, are with the University of Akron law school. They've run expungement clinics with the Akron Urban League for nearly a decade.

“Here I am today; 13 years sober," Harris said. "I have all four my children back in my life. I work at Community Support Services as a recovery specialist for the last seven years, helping people with mental illness. Because I also have a mental illness. So, I got a double whammy: mental illness [and] substance abuse. And I’m just grateful that I’ve knocked down a lot of barriers so I can reach so many people.”

Harris feels that her pardon was granted because she’s stayed out of trouble and contributed to society. And now she says she can fully move forward with her life. State officials hope more people can do the same as the expedited pardon process gains popularity and the waiting period shrinks as resources become available. So far, more than 400 people have applied for the program – and 37 of them have been accepted. But there are more than 200 people who are currently in-progress or are awaiting a decision.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.