Ohio’s on-line inventory of collateral consequences – a useful tool for defense lawyers
Kelley Williams-Bolar was a single mother in Akron Ohio, a teacher’s aide who was studying to become a teacher herself. Her story made headlines in 2011, when she was accused of misusing her father’s home address to enroll her two young daughters in a public school they were not entitled to attend. After her own home was burglarized, Kelley had enrolled the girls in their grandfather’s school district, so they could spend each afternoon after school safely at their grandfather’s house. To make this possible she had signed a “grandparent affidavit” saying that the girls lived with their grandfather. The new school district ultimately rejected the affidavit, and she withdrew the girls from their new school at the end of the school year.
Ohio’s “grandparent affidavit” form contains a printed warning, advising that anyone who submits a false affidavit can be charged with “Falsification, a first degree misdemeanor.” But that warning gave no hint of what would actually happen to Kelley. Eighteen months after her daughters left the new school, the district attorney charged Kelley with felony Grand Theft, claiming she had “stolen” tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tuition for her children.
Particularly given Kelley’s career aspiration to be a teacher, her defense lawyer could have made good use of a new online resource called CIVICC (Civil Impacts of Criminal Convictions), a computerized compendium of state collateral consequences linked to the crimes that trigger them. (Kelley’s felony conviction was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor by Governor John Kasich, high level intervention that cannot be counted on to substitute for effective advocacy.)
At the CIVICC website, counsel in a case like Kelley’s could run a quick search using the keyword “theft,” and learn right away that conviction on the Grand Theft charge would expose her to 509 possible collateral consequences (“civil impacts”) under Ohio law, burdens she would bear long after her criminal sentence was complete.
Those consequences could include denial of a teaching license and ineligibility for employment in a school. Even if she received a comparatively light sentence for the offense, the simple fact of conviction would likely destroy Kelley’s hopes of becoming a teacher. CIVICC would also show the same consequences flowing from any conviction for felony Tampering with Records, the conviction that Kelley ultimately received.
In contrast, counsel would learn that a conviction for Falsification — the misdemeanor offense specifically identified on the grandparent affidavit form — would trigger “only” 192 collateral consequences, and the worst threat to Kelley’s teaching ambitions would be the right of licensing officials to question her about her criminal record. The stark contrast between these long-term outcomes would provoke at minimum a serious attorney-client discussion about priorities. The knowledge could significantly influence defense strategy and perhaps lead to a better outcome — not only for Kelley but for the state as well, as research has shown that secure employment offers by far the best assurance that an ex-offender will go on to live a law-abiding life.
The CIVICC database is an ongoing project of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in partnership with the Ohio Public Defender’s office. The project began in 2010 to address a constellation of related circumstances that Ohio shares with other states across the country:
- The explosion of criminal convictions in recent decades has produced a statewide population where 1 in 6 Ohioans has a felony or misdemeanor conviction record.
- Collateral consequences have proliferated correspondingly: CIVICC presently contains 844 and counting, nearly all enacted in the last 40 years.
- 95% of convictions are the result of guilty pleas, entered by defendants who have been informed of the potential criminal penalties but have no clue of the long-term collateral consequences they will confront when the sentence is complete.
- The cumulative economic effects of mass incarceration and lifelong collateral consequences have finally begun to capture attention from policymakers across the political spectrum.
- The collateral consequences in Ohio law are scattered throughout the statutory and administrative codes with no discernible order or system. Anyone searching the codes for the collateral consequences of a particular conviction — whether a defense lawyer, a returning citizen, a workforce development professional or a social service volunteer — will spend hours if not days winding through the labyrinth of potentially applicable laws and rules.
In response to these multiple concerns, CIVICC was created to collect in one searchable online database all the collateral consequences of conviction that exist in Ohio statutes. More than that, its “relational database” structure enables users to see which collateral consequences are linked to which offenses under Ohio law. Starting with an “Offense search,” the user can look up a particular criminal offense or type of offense, and find out what civil penalties that offense will trigger in addition to the court-imposed sentence. Starting with an “Impact search,” the user can look up a particular right, privilege or field of endeavor, and find out what types of criminal conviction might block access to it.
The CIVICC database first went online experimentally in March 2011, with information about 56 “civil impacts” of conviction. It now contains 844 consequences, of which more than 300 have been newly enacted and/or amended since March, 2011. CIVICC’s design and features have similarly evolved to meet the practical needs of its widely varied users. Certain essential characteristics do not change, however. Among them are the following:
- CIVICC provides a narrative description of each consequence, which is searchable in an “Impact Keyword” query. Many descriptions include citations to the multiple statutes and regulations that must be read together in order to understand a single consequence.
- CIVICC’s searchable content identifies the type of case outcome required to trigger each consequence. This is particularly valuable in Ohio, whose collateral consequence statutes vary enormously in their reach. Some collateral consequences can be triggered by an arrest or indictment, some by participation in a diversion program, and some by an offense that has been officially “sealed” or “expunged.” Juvenile defenders value the ability to use the Impact keyword “juvenile” and find the consequences that can be triggered specifically by a juvenile adjudication.
- CIVICC search results provide a link to the full text each offense statute and each consequence statute, plus additional links to certain exceptions found in Ohio statutes and regulations. This is possible because Ohio provides online public access to the official text of its statutes and regulations via Lawriter.
- CIVICC is designed to be easy to use, but each page has a link to the User Guide/FAQs which can also be downloaded for offline use.
OJPC first envisioned CIVICC as a one-year project but after almost five years it is still under construction, continually expanding with both new and updated content even as it handles over one thousand public queries each month. While CIVICC users are anonymous, system reports show that queries come from community organizations, employers, courts, government agencies, public library users, public defenders, treatment providers, law firms and academic institutions, both within and outside Ohio. Such reports echo what OJPC has learned directly from the users themselves: that CIVICC is being used in a wide range of settings for purposes that include:
- identifying a particular applicable collateral consequences, as required when applying for a Certificate of Achievement and Employability (“CAE”) or Certificate for Qualification for Employment (“CQE”) under recently enacted Ohio laws;
- finding the range of collateral consequences that may result from a particular kind of criminal case outcome;
- identifying all the collateral consequences related to a particular occupation or field of study;
- examining the scope and effects of particular legislative enactments; and
- evaluating and comparing the types of collateral consequences that affect various segments of the community.
News and inquiries from CIVICC users feed OJPC’s determination make continual improvements in CIVICC’s scope and functionality. Encouragement comes especially from OJPC’s current collaboration with community college faculty, administrators and students; and from our work with Ohio’s statewide Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition, which involves state agencies and community organizations in advancing social and economic success for individuals with criminal records and for their families and communities.
OJPC provides training about CIVICC and collateral consequences to user groups of all sizes and stripes, and we welcome inquiries and insights from all sources. The website’s Contact page provides conventional contact information plus a direct e-mail link for user questions. Try CIVICC at http://CIVICCOhio.org, and let us know what you think!