Old convictions are keeping 1.9 million Ohio residents from getting fresh starts

'It really feels inherently unfair'

CINCINNATI -- Rayell Wilhite isn’t about making excuses.

She made serious mistakes in her youth. She got addicted to crack cocaine and codeine and ended up with two felony convictions and two misdemeanors -- all drug-related. She lost custody of her two kids for seven years.

“I did that. I have to take responsibility for that,” said Wilhite, who is now 55, happily married and a grandmother of three. “That’s not who I am anymore.”

Wilhite has been clean for 21 years now, and her last conviction was in the mid-1990s. But that old criminal record haunts her every time she tries to get a new job or further her education to improve her life.

For millions of people across the country, criminal records have resulted in what amounts to life sentences, no matter the charge.

In Ohio alone, 1.9 million people have criminal records, according to the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center. They face nearly 900 barriers known as “collateral sanctions” in Ohio laws that restrict their employment, housing, family involvement and other rights and privileges, with most directly affecting their ability to work.

That’s a problem that hurts everyone, said Dorianne Mason, a staff attorney with Ohio Justice & Policy Center and director of the organization’s Second Chance Project.

“It’s a contributing factor to the rates of poverty we have in Ohio and particularly in Cincinnati,” Mason said. “A lot of these kids have parents who have criminal records who cannot get a job that will give them gainful employment, stable employment.”

In addition, a lot of employers that want to hire people with criminal convictions can’t do it under state law, making it more difficult to fill jobs and grow the economy, she said.

As a result, people with criminal records often end up working low-paying jobs without benefits or for temporary agencies where their pay can fluctuate dramatically from month to month.

“The people that come into my office are the hardest-working people that I have ever encountered. They are working two or three jobs to be able to support themselves,” Mason said. “It really feels inherently unfair.”

As bad as all of that is, though, the situation has improved in recent years.

The ABCs of CQEs

Ohio lawmakers in 2012 passed a law allowing people like Wilhite to obtain what is called a Certificate of Qualification for Employment, or CQE. Getting a CQE is a lengthy and complex legal process. But the certificates can help remove barriers that get in the way of obtaining certain jobs or professional licenses. They also protect employers from liability of an employee with a criminal record commits a crime.

The CQEs only work for people with a state criminal offense, not federal. And there are some barriers in state law that even the CQE won’t help remove.

Those include sex-offender registration and related duties; some driver’s license suspensions; and job restrictions to become a prosecutor or law enforcement officer. There are also specific restrictions for healthcare professionals if, for example, job applicants were addicted to drugs or had illegally distributed drugs even if they were not criminally convicted.

                    Dorianne Mason

That makes jobs in the growing healthcare field off limits to many people who are struggling to find careers that pay well enough to support them and their families, Mason said.

“If we have restrictions that are not really related to the type of work that a person is doing, it’s a question of our legislators really deciding what things make sense to actually have as barriers,” she said.

There are companies in Greater Cincinnati that have embraced hiring people with criminal records and have found them to be loyal and committed employees, Mason said.

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But there also are employers that won’t even consider hiring anyone with a criminal record, even people that have CQEs, said Peggy Zink, CEO of the nonprofit Cincinnati Works, which helps people get jobs to help them lift themselves out of poverty.

“I was talking to an employer recently, and he was saying, ‘We’re desperately looking for people. We can’t get enough people to look at these jobs,’” Zink said. 

Rayell Wilhite's CQE.

She told him that Cincinnati Works had plenty of people who wanted jobs like his but that many of them had criminal records.

“He won’t even entertain the discussion of hiring people with criminal records,” she said. “I asked, ‘What about the CQE?’ and he said, ‘It doesn’t apply here.’”

‘I just want to be greater than my parts’

The CQE has been a big help for Wilhite.

She spent nearly a year working to get the certificate, and she has used the document regularly when applying for new jobs and continuing her education.

She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2015. She has had to show her CQE to take the necessary tests to become a licensed social worker. And she needed to document to apply for a master’s program, too.

Rayell Wilhite's wedding photo.

She’s been working for almost a year as a care manager for Humana, checking in with older patients to make sure they have their doctor appointments in order and the medications they need.

She’s planning to start her master’s program in January and eventually wants to work as a social worker. It’s a long way from cleaning hotel rooms at the Hyatt, the first job she had after her convictions and drug treatment. But the hard work has been worth it, she said. Her son and daughter are grown and successful. She spends loads of time with her grandkids. And she’s working toward a career where she feels like she can make a difference, adding: “It was who I was meant to be.”

“I don’t have to change the world, but I want to be part of something that changes something for the better, if that makes any sense,” she said. “I just want to be greater than my parts.”

With hundreds of thousands of Ohio residents struggling to get past their criminal convictions and build better lives for themselves, Mason said she thinks it’s time for state lawmakers to take a fresh look at those nearly 900 barriers in state law and figure out how many of them truly need to be there.

And she hopes people across the state will urge their state representatives and senators to do just that.

As Wilhite put it: “Maybe it’s time to rethink how we’re hiring people.”

Rayell Wilhite works from home as a care manager for Humana.

More information about Ohio Justice & Policy Center and its Second Chance Project is available online. More information about Cincinnati Works is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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