Cincinnati's Fresh Start Clinic
Each first and third Wednesday of the month brings an average of 25-40 people to the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office. Ann Ohmer, a Paralegal in the Appellate Division says, “It is amazing when someone comes in with a record that has haunted them for 20 or 30 years and we tell them that we can file to try to remove it. We have had clients break down and cry when they hear this news. The fear of going back before the court and lack of information have prevented them from so many things. It is so rewarding to give people the ability to move on with their lives!”The Concept: Each first and third Wednesday of the month brings an average of 25-40 people (and 100+ applications) to the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office Fresh Start Clinic in Cincinnati, OH.
In January 2013, after 20+ years in private practice, Christine Jones was recruited to the office by Ray Faller, who heads the office. Christine became the Director of the Appellate Division and was encouraged to assist the office in strategies to improve both the quality of its programs and the perception of the office by their client community. As she researched well-regarded public defender offices nationwide, she learned of the San Francisco Public Defender's Clean Slate program and from them developed a model for Hamilton County.
At its very first Fresh Start Clinic held in October 2013, 150 people came, and it has been going strong since. Early in the Clinic's history, city agencies closed early for a tornado watch but the Fresh Start Clinic decided not to cancel, and there was no reduction in numbers as clients braved the weather for this service. Sitting in a dark room, worried about an impending storm, the value that clients attached to expungement was obvious.
The Public Defender Office makes a conscious effort to publicize the Clinic services, featuring it on their website, letting current clients know that it exists, doing regular public service announcements on TV and radio, promoting it through social media, and putting up fliers in community centers throughout the county. Beyond outreach to clients who will benefit from expungement assistance, Fresh Start staff network with other service providers who serve an overlapping client base, and with other actors in the criminal justice system. Cheryl Horne, Mitigation & Client Relations Specialist for the office, coordinates this communication. Rosalind Porter, a paralegal with Office's Appellate Division said, “I think the word just spread like wildfire through the community. Someone came had his or her record expunged, and had a good experience. They spread the word for us. We know that expungement is often the key to getting a job, and that jobs really help people become productive citizens. We're lucky to have a lot of support from all sides.”
The Mechanics: The Fresh Start Clinic is staffed is by Hamilton County Public Defender Office employees. Service is voluntary but there has been no problem getting staff to attend. Christine emphasized that the development of this program was a thorough, thoughtful process and that the Fresh Start Clinic was developed with feedback from all staff. She says, “We spent a lot of time anticipating how this would work, what issues we might have, and whether we had sufficient internal support to be sustainable. We took our time and we listened to everyone. That was one key. The other key was to involve judges in the conversation early, and to continually communicate with them. We talk to judges about this program a lot.” Early issues that were vetted included: meeting with the financial qualifiers, acquiring equipment to process applications, becoming versed in expungement rules and process, and developing sufficient administrative support.
Participation in the Fresh Start Clinic does not require that a client was formerly represented by the office, but it is reserved for clients who satisfy the office's financial eligibility rules for representation. While Ohio is governed by statewide expungement law, local practices require that only records from Hamilton County can be expunged in Hamilton County. Clients need to bring their “blue sheet” from the Sherriff's Office before work begins on their expungement. This sheet costs $5 and this process is an effective way of ensuring follow-through from the client.
At each Fresh Start Clinic, clients are first greeted by attorneys who make a preliminary determination as to the client's eligibility for expungement; by law, certain convictions are not eligible for expungement or the client has too many convictions. Once that determination is made, the clients are financially qualified. The final step is for the clients to meet with a paralegal to fill out their applications, go over their blue sheet, and identify expungeable offenses. This final step also includes an additional review by another attorney, usually Christine or an attorney well-versed in the expungement laws, to ensure that no applications will be filed for clients or convictions which are not eligible. Clinic staff have become expungement experts, and have excellent accuracy in screening applications and getting expungements processed successfully and timely. The hope is to maintain the Clinic's credibility with the judges. The finalized application will be assigned a court date – usually within 6 weeks of the application. Notice is then mailed by the office to the client, and often followed up with a phone call. The Juvenile Division dedicates an attorney to standby for each Fresh Start Clinic and provides support during application review, as juvenile expungements can sometimes require additional expertise. Attorneys do not typically accompany clients to court, unless the arrest/offense may require some advocacy.
Clients whose applications do not seem to necessitate the presence of an attorney are advised that if they do not successfully have their record expunged, they should request a continuance and return to the Clinic. At this point, a public defender will assist them in another hearing. Due to the ongoing communication between the Fresh Start Clinic staff and judges, the judges have been supportive of this practice.
It usually costs clients $50 to process applications for expungement; however, if they are financially qualified as indigent to utilize the services of the Clinic, an affidavit of indigency is filed which waives the filing fee. The expungement of any arrest that did not result in a conviction is always free.
The Fresh Start Clinic has provided advocacy opportunities beyond expungement services. Some clients want their record expunged, but still owe fines and fees. Attorneys have had success arguing for reduction/waiver of unpaid fees in order to process the expungement. Kathryn Ancona, Director of the Municipal Division, has become a specialist on this front, for both Municipal and other cases. In another case, a client's licensure was compromised by a conviction that she had pled to and was unexpungeable. Margie Slagle, an attorney in the Appellate Division, re-negotiated a different plea agreement that satisfied the prosecution and the court, and preserved the ability for her client to continue her career in the health care field. Another client came in and discovered an active warrant. An attorney was able to get that warrant recalled.
Some clients have records that cannot be expunged. The Clinic has partnered with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center; the Center also holds clinics where they will assist these clients in obtaining Certificates of Achievement for Employability that can be used to mitigate the harm of a disclosed conviction on job applications. Further, it is developing relationships with progressive employers who need good workers and won't be prejudiced simply by an applicant with a criminal record.
The Fresh Start Clinic of the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office began in October 2013 and has now served more than 400 people with more than 2000 records applications. Beginning June 2015, with the support of the IT Division within the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office, more rigorous data is being recorded, and all applications are being converted into electronic files in the office's file management system. The office is now tracking preliminary qualified/non-qualified petitions; comeback rates; and expungement success.
The Rewards: Christine Jones notes how satisfying it is for staff involved in Fresh Start: “When we see people during representation, we are often seeing them at the worst time in their lives. They are in crisis. It is wonderful to see them at this different juncture, which is one of hope and opportunity.” Ann Ohmer, a Paralegal in the Appellate Division said, “It is amazing when someone comes in with a record that has haunted them for 20 or 30 years and we tell them that we can file to try to remove it. We have had clients break down and cry when they hear this news. The fear of going back before the court and lack of information have prevented them from so many things. It is so rewarding to give people the ability to move on with their lives!”
Christine notes that the rewards are far from only emotional. The Fresh Start Clinic has improved the quality of legal representation in the office, as attorneys are much more attuned to potential collateral consequences, and now have specialists in the office who can assist in plea negotiations. Additionally, a more engaged client community on the whole has made for more positive and productive relationships between defendants and attorneys.
Director Ray Faller is himself a regular volunteer for the Fresh Start Clinic. He believes that while its name reflects the immense opportunity for clients to rebuild their lives, the name also recognizes the opportunity for its office to make its own fresh start. He said, “When I was hired, there had been a number of critical reports of our office, followed by a period of unstable leadership. Fresh Start is now a fixture of our office – created by the initiative of staff – and one that I am incredibly proud of. Its presence and popularity signal an achievement of reform for this office, and is a much appreciated service for our clients.”
The Fresh Start Clinic is held the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of every month, from 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. While the Clinic used to be held in the main Public Defender's Office, it recently moved to the Juvenile Division's offices, located at 125 E. Court St, 9th Floor, in downtown Cincinnati. The Public Defender's Office is building relationships with Cincinnati Works and other job placement groups so that clients can begin the process of finding employment, and hopes that other service providers might take advantage of this opportunity and be available for clients as well.
More Info: NAPD has posted relevant promotional materials, applications and internal protocols for the Hamilton County Fresh Start Clinic, Clean Slate Program (in San Francisco), and the New Orleans Expungement Hour. These are available to members in MyGideon, NAPD's Public Defense Library. If other offices running expungement clinics are willing to share their materials, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you're considering creating services like this in/for your office and want more information, please email Christine Jones