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In January, Jerome Daniels looked forward to getting a fresh start. Newly released from prison, he hoped to find a job so he could provide for his two daughters.

“I was locked up for their whole life,” he said of his daughters, now 16 and 18. “I watched them grow up in the visiting room.”

But during the time Daniels was in prison, he was still liable for child support, which continued to accrue. When he got out, his criminal record made finding work a challenge.

For many ex-offenders, this type of predicament results in a cycle that can land them right back in prison. Without jobs, they can’t pay child support, and they may end up losing their driver’s licenses as a result which, in turn, makes finding work even more difficult.

Attorneys at Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic hope to be able to break that cycle by working with ex-offenders through its Project GRACE, which stands for Guided Re-entry Assistance and Community Education.

Origins and evolution

The foundations of Project GRACE began with the work of Josh Abel, executive director for Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic.

“Josh was initially the one who started doing expungement and pardons and sealing petitions, realizing just how much of a hindrance it was to have some kind of criminal record in trying to get a job, in trying to reintegrate into society,” said Chris Purnell, managing attorney. “It’s really a huge scarlet letter, and it’s hard to find work.”

project grace Mitzi Wilson, Project GRACE staff attorney, has advised Jerome Daniels on civil legal remedies. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

So Project GRACE – launched late in 2010 – began to focus on how to help ex-offenders begin life anew. Project GRACE staff attorney Mitzi Wilson said many ex-offenders have several civil legal problems that they need help with, including child support, visitation and bankruptcy.

“We’ve been doing expungement for folks for years, but under the old law – prior to July 1 – it was really restrictive. So we were advising hundreds of people a year, ‘Sorry, you can’t do anything. Under current Indiana law, you’re out of luck,’” Abel said.

Year after year, Abel said he and the staff saw bills die in the Legislature that could have helped ex-offenders restrict access to their records, so they didn’t expect anything different to happen in 2011. They were pleasantly surprised when Indiana’s House Bill 1211 passed. Public Law 194 took effect in July.

Josh Abel Mug Abel

Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic was able to hire Wilson full-time in September, due to funding from the Indianapolis Parks Foundation 2011 Community Crime Prevention Grant Program and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“It’s really fortuitous that all this was in the works, so when we got the grant funding to bring Mitzi on board, she was really able to hit the ground running,” Abel said.

Latest developments

The new law has opened up more opportunities for ex-offenders to clear their records, Wilson explained.

“For individuals that have certain convictions that are either Class D felony or misdemeanor, and they’re not sex or violent offenders, they can petition for restricted access to that conviction if it’s been eight years since their sentence,” Wilson said. “There is kind of another requirement on top of that – I don’t know how clear that aspect of the law is yet – but if they have a subsequent felony within that timeframe they may or may not be eligible.”

Since July 1, Project GRACE has had one petition to restrict access to criminal records granted. Wilson withdrew one petition because the client had paperwork showing different dates for the completion of his probation. She said that petition will be re-filed in a year.

Wilson is preparing to file 15 petitions, and she said at least five cases are stuck in hearing, as the court keeps continuing the hearings.

chris purnell Purnell

Colleen White, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and Project GRACE associate, said because the law is so new, courts and communities are still trying to determine how it applies and what parties are restricted from access when a petition is granted.

She said that the Department of Correction, Office of the Indiana Attorney General, the state police and courts will have to work together to uphold court orders that restrict access.

“There’s a lot of confusion with the new law, and a lot of community confusion, too … so that’s one of the biggest parts, going to all these community meetings and just getting the word out there,” White said. “We’re willing to go out – if there’s an audience of one or 100 people – we’re willing to go out and clear the air.”

Reaching people

While project members can educate ex-offenders about the legal remedies available to them, they hope to be able to reach more people after conviction but before incarceration so they are aware that they can file a petition to modify child support.

“The problem is it’s such a short amount of time and that’s not big on people’s list: I’m going to prison right now, let me modify my child support,” White said. “So, we need to let them know that is available to them.”

colleen white White

The clinic conducts intakes around Indianapolis and also in northeast Indiana in Huntington and Fort Wayne, where its second office is located. Daniels learned about Project GRACE through an intake at an Indianapolis church.

He was able to find a job, but the amount garnished from his check for his younger daughter’s benefit left him struggling to make ends meet and to provide for his older daughter, who is now in college.

“We don’t really connect,” he said of his oldest daughter. “I’ve been gone her whole life, that’s a big part of it. But the other part is, she sees me as a deadbeat. I can’t come and take her to McDonald’s … kids in college, they want things, and I can’t buy her a laptop.”

Wilson has been working on getting Daniels’ garnishment reduced to a more manageable level and helping him with a driver’s license problem.

“I’ve been trying to start from this point on. I made a mistake, and I paid for my mistake through the American legal system, and now all I ask for is a second chance,” Daniels said.

Daniels said he knows that others in his position could benefit from the kind of guidance Project GRACE provides.

“One day we have to come back out here. One day, we’re going to need jobs, and we’re going to need to reintegrate into society,” he said. “It’s a whole group of people who would like a second chance.”•

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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