MT. HEALTHY, Ohio — Rayell Wilhite graduated summa cum laude from Northern Kentucky University. She passed her social work licensing exam on her first try.
Still, her stomach twisted as she sat in her first interviews for nursing school. No matter how many years she put between herself and the darkest period of her life — one that involved crack, codeine and an arrest for both — the question resurfaced at every job interview and educational juncture: Do you have any felonies on your record?
So did the answer: Yes. Two. From 25 years ago.
“I knew it was going to be a slow walk because I was older; I was a non-traditional student,” Wilhite, now a social worker with the Council on Aging, said Wednesday. “I knew I’d have to jump through some hoops, but I didn’t know to what extent these felonies would hold me back.”
She went into two years of treatment instead of prison after police discovered drugs in her purse, but past convictions still trail after her and the thousands of other Ohioans with criminal records. They can remain roadblocks to education, jobs, housing and relationships even long after their recipients change their lives.
A new proposal in the Ohio House of Representatives would help people like Wilhite — those convicted of non-violent, non-sexual offenses — start over for good.
House Bill 1, co-sponsored by Dayton Republican Rep. Phil Plummer and Toledo Democratic Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, would allow people convicted of no more than two qualifying felonies or four misdemeanors to more easily petition for records of those offenses to be sealed.
“I think that’s in the best interest of all of us,” said David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. “If we want to see people be productive when they come home and be good neighbors and work and not revert back to a criminal way of thinking and living, then I think we ought to clear the pathways, the obstacles for people so they can succeed.”
Wilhite credits her own success to her family, especially her grandmother, who continued to love and pray for her as she dealt with addiction and rehabilitation.
Now a grandmother herself, she knows her experiences help her relate to her clients and the world they live in. She loves her job, she said. But she wants to put the record of her past — the headwind she’s been struggling against for more than two decades — behind her.
She knows the arguments against it, she said: “Well, you shouldn’t have ever done it. You shouldn’t have ever used drugs. It’s not our fault that you used drugs. It’s not society’s fault that you used drugs.”
She doesn’t buy it.
“‘Once an addict, always an addict’ no longer applies,” she said. “‘Once a felon, always a felon’ no longer applies.”
House Bill 1 was introduced Tuesday and referred to the House’s Criminal Justice committee Wednesday.