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Columbus City Council Initiative Awarded $500,000 in National Competition

Opportunity Port will increase access to justice while removing barriers to employment and housing

[Columbus, OH] Opportunity Port, an initiative of the office of Columbus City Councilmember  Rob Dorans, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, and Smart Columbus, has been awarded $500,000 to scale a mobile-friendly website that helps Franklin County residents seal eligible criminal records. 

The Alliance for the American Dream competition is sponsored by The Ohio State University in partnership with Schmidt Futures. The competition requires teams to develop concepts that will raise the net incomes of 10,000 local, middle-class households by 10 percent by 2022.

“The middle class is where families cement an economically secure life for themselves, but a criminal record significantly hinders a person’s potential to prosper,” said Councilmember  Dorans. “Many of the folks I’ve served as a pro bono legal attorney have missed out on opportunities simply because of a past mistake. When I joined Council last year, I made record sealing a top priority.”

Record sealing is a legal mechanism that allows justice involved people to apply to have their criminal records removed from public view. Research from the University of Michigan published in March 2019 shows that while record sealing improves earnings and lowers the chances of re-arrest, fewer than 7 percent of those eligible for record sealing had applied. Franklin County record sealing rates are also low; in 2019, approximately 10,000 people were eligible for record sealing, but fewer than 2,000 applied. 

The total number of Americans with criminal records is almost equal to the number of Americans with a four-year degree, but while college degrees open doors, criminal records make vital resources inaccessible. According to the NAACP, almost half of all black males in America are arrested by the age of 23. The ubiquity of public records and their use as selection criteria for everything from housing to jobs exacerbate racial inequality through systemic racism.

“Opportunity Port is an innovative tool that will allow us to directly impact one of the root causes of racial inequity that exists within our criminal justice system,” said Councilmember  Shayla Favor, Chair of the Criminal Justice and Judiciary Committee. “By providing members of our community with the ability to seal a damaging criminal record, we are also providing them with a pathway out of poverty that can change the course of their life.”

Record sealing is one of many criminal justice-focused initiatives spearheaded by Columbus City Council, including marijuana reform legislation passed unanimously in July 2019 that significantly lowered the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Columbus City Council expects Opportunity Port to be available for public use by early 2021.