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UA Law’s reentry clinic provides one-stop shopping for ex-offenders

The University of Akron School of Law Reentry Clinic got underway in 2009, with the creation of the clemency project, which was designed to help low-income ex-offenders in Summit County obtain a pardon for their convictions.  Now the initiative is made up of multiple components, including the Expungement Clinic, Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) Clinic and the Human Trafficking Clinic.  (Photos courtesy of The University of Akron School of Law).

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 14, 2015

It’s been over 20 years since 46-year-old Montoya Boykin first found herself on the wrong side of the law. Although the Akron resident is now a social worker at two nonprofit organizations, her records remain unsealed in Akron and Summit County.

“My last charge was in 1991,” said Boykin. “I received a pardon from former Ohio Gov. Strickland that covered all but one minor misdemeanor for disorderly conduct that occurred after I applied for the pardon.

“Cuyahoga County has sealed my record but Akron and Summit County will not because there is no law on the books that says they have to do so.”

While her record did not prevent her from becoming a licensed social worker, she said she worries about the future.

“I am working now, but what if I wanted to get a job in the school system for instance, I don’t think I would be able to do so.”

It’s situations like Boykin’s that The University of Akron School of Law Reentry Clinic was designed to resolve. The multi-pronged initiative first got underway in 2009, with the creation of the clemency project, which was designed to help low-income ex-offenders in Summit County obtain a pardon for their convictions.

The following year the Expungement Clinic began to assist Akron residents in their quest to have their convictions sealed by the court. The clinic now helps low-income residents countywide.

Other components have also been added, including the Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) clinic, which was started in 2013 after the passage of Senate Bill 337. A collaborative effort with the Summit County Common Pleas Court and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the clinic enables low-income Summit County residents with criminal convictions to apply to the court for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment. By presenting the certificate to an employer or licensing authority, the ex-offender may be able to get a previously prohibited job or license based upon the discretion of the business/authority.

The Human Trafficking Clinic is the most recent endeavor. It began operating at the start of 2014 to aid human trafficking victims in Summit County in wiping out certain charges like solicitation that were likely forced upon them by their traffickers.

“We started all four of our clinics independently but we decided to run them under one umbrella,” said Joann Sahl, professor of law and director of The University of Akron School of Law Reentry Clinic.

“All of the clinics are staffed almost entirely by volunteer law students,” said Sahl. “The law school has a pro bono community service requirement for graduation so the hours in the clinic can count toward it. Many students come back month after month, long after this requirement is met.”

“The clinics give the students a chance to practice under the supervision of an attorney, which provides them with invaluable on-the-job experience,” said Russel Nichols, director of the Expungement Clinic.

“We accept 1Ls, 2Ls and 3Ls and we have begun using some undergraduate students so they can get an idea of whether they might want a legal career,” said Sahl.

About 100 students are trained to handle client needs. Each month Sahl and Nichols set up an outreach clinic on a Saturday at a local church that is staffed by about 20 to 30 law students.

Student CQE clinic organizer Sarah Wetzel oversees the training for the volunteers as well as making sure that the CQE clinic runs smoothly. Wetzel is a paid graduate student who is working on a joint legal and master of public administration degree.

“One of the biggest things the clinic offers me as well as any volunteer law student is an opportunity to see the very practical side of the law,” said Wetzel. “A lot of things we learn in law school are theoretical. The teachers give us different fact patterns and made up scenarios to test our knowledge. 

“When students volunteer for the clinic they actually get to meet with clients.  It’s a unique experience when a human being comes to you since you have no idea what the person is going to say. It’s a real life test that you don’t normally get in our classes.”

Although Wetzel has not decided whether she will practice law, she said her experience at the clinic helps her “think on her feet,” adding it has also improved her personal communication skills. “In general, a lot of the clients come from walks of life that I don’t think many law students have experienced or think of on a regular basis,” said Wetzel.

“The program is outstanding and the attorneys I work with are amazing,” said Kristen Guappone, a part-time law student who has been volunteering since July 2014, primarily handling matters at the Expungement Clinic.

“I am getting more practical experience than I would have gotten had I gotten a job as a law student at a firm. ere they have me interviewing clients, drafting motions for the court and representing clients in the courtroom, all of which is overseen by my supervising attorney, Russ Nichols.

“He has also encouraged me to get my legal intern certificate from the Ohio Supreme Court, which allows me to appear in any of the courts in the state as long as my supervising attorney is with me,” said Guappone, who graduates in May 2015. “Getting my certificate has allowed me to get to know judges and attorneys and to see how things are run and how attorneys handle problems.”

“One of the great things about the reentry clinic is the value it provides to our students,” said Matthew J. Wilson, dean of The University of Akron School of Law. “From the first day of law school, students have the unique opportunity to sit down and interview clients and prepare paperwork that will enable the clients to become productive members of society. Without the help of this clinic, many of these people may not be able to get jobs, so there is an immediate benefit to society.”

“The reentry clinic offers one-stop shopping for our clients since we have many community partners who often have representatives on hand to help with matters like housing or healthcare,” said Nichols.

The community partners include the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the Summit County Reentry network, the Summit County Common Pleas Court, Info Line, the Office of the Summit County Executive, the Akron City Council, the Summit County Department of Job and Family Services and the Child Support Enforcement Agency.

“We see about 75 people a month,” said Nichols. “Last year, the Expungement Clinic represented about 130 people, dispensing of about 200 cases since many clients have more than one case.”

The CQE clinic has handled over 400 applications since it began.

“We have people from all walks of life, some with a master’s degree and others who cannot read or write,” said Nichols.

“Most people come to us because they have a criminal conviction that is in the way of employment and/or professional licensure or is keeping them from getting housing,” said Sahl.

According to the Ohio Justice & Policy Center’s 2011 annual report one in six Ohioans has misdemeanor or felony convictions that are negatively impacting their lives.

“Many of our clients have misdemeanors,” said Sahl. “The most frequent offenses are petty theft, child endangering, drug offenses or disorderly conduct related to alcohol or drugs. Even though they did not go to jail in many cases, the conviction is still serving as a barrier to them leading productive lives.”

Boykin was actually the clinic’s first client. Her case dates back to around 2006 when she sought help from Sahl who was then a staff attorney at Community Legal Aid Services.

“When Joann took the job at The University of Akron, she took me with her so to speak,” said Boykin. “I think this clinic is very important. There are a lot of people living in poverty who are not able to get jobs because of their records and they are undereducated about how to help themselves.

“I have become the poster child for this clinic. I am hoping my story will help others.”

The clinic has generated its share of positive reviews. PreLaw magazine recently chose it as among the top 15 most innovative law school clinics in the country.

The clinic is partnering with the Akron Bar Association to enable clients with suspended or revoked driver’s licenses to remedy their situations. Beginning in February, the bar association will send trained volunteer attorneys to the monthly outreach clinic.

“The process of getting one’s license back is often very complicated,” said William Dowling, co-chair of the Akron Bar Association Pro Bono Committee. “There are many different circumstances that can result in license suspension ranging from criminal offenses to failure to pay tickets or child support.

“In Summit County not being able to drive is a significant impediment to reentry into society,” said Dowling. “Restoration of driving privileges is essential for Summit County residents trying to get back on their feet.”

Dowling said about two dozen attorneys have expressed interest in helping people resolve their driver’s license issues.

“We are having our training during the first part of February and then I expect about three or four attorneys will be sent to an individual clinic,” said Dowling. “We hope to give the clients we see a roadmap to get their licenses back. If someone needs an attorney, we also have lawyers available to take on cases on a volunteer basis if necessary.”

In mid-November, Sahl said the clinic received a grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation so that those in charge can help to set up similar clinics in 2015 in Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus.

“We will begin in Cleveland, where we will work with the nonprofit organization Towards Employment to replicate our model,” said Sahl.