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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”•