Friday, June 07, 2002

Clearing the records

Expungement isn't amnesty

        The story on Thursday's front page that Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) will help people arrested during last year's riot clear their records met with predictable howls from the unforgiving and the uninformed. It wasn't long before people started calling Charlie Luken's office accusing him of going back on his vow of no amnesty for rioters because he offered support to CAN's action.

        Amnesty has been an oft-repeated demand of the boycott coalition. Like most of those demands, it is more rhetoric than reason. The boycott leaders may understand the hollowness of this issue, but most of those caught up in the shouting (on both sides) have very little understanding of what they are yelling about.

        Mayor Luken set up CAN after the riot to help heal the city. That's what this effort seeks to do. Ohio law recognizes that people make mistakes. Expungement is the legal system's way of keeping a minor mistake from haunting a person forever. There are exceptions. You have to be a first offender and generally, you have to be willing to pay a $50 court fee. CAN is offering to help people through the process.

        Well before the riot of April 2001, the judges in Hamilton County Municipal Court, at the request of the Legal Aid Society, started looking at the possibility of waiving those fees. The reasoning was that such an opportunity should be open to everybody, not just those who can afford it.

        People interested in expungements aren't career criminals. They are usually young people who did something irresponsible - they got caught smoking a joint, driving too fast, getting drunk in the wrong place. To paraphrase George W. Bush, when you are young and irresponsible, you are young and irresponsible.

        In many cases you snap out of it and become aware of the price of irresponsibility. Often the price tag is attached to an application for a job, college or a loan. It's tied to the question that asks: “Have you ever been arrested?”

        An expungement means you can legally answer that question with a “no.”

        The records aren't erased. They're sealed. The only people who are supposed to ever get a look at them are the police and prosecutors.

        The riot last year resulted in about 800 arrests, most for minor offenses. There were about 60 charged with felonies. CAN isn't suggesting anyone lift a finger for them. But there were 607 picked up on curfew violations and most were out of jail within a few hours. At least 44 of those had never been arrested before and at least another couple of hundred have only minor misdemeanor prior offenses, which means they could be eligible for expungements.

        If they were middle class kids they probably would have parents who would hire lawyers who would have started the paper work months ago. But most of them aren't middle class and instead of lawyers, they have been listening to demagogues like Damon Lynch III and Juleana Frierson of the Black United Front shout demands that the city grant “amnesty” for those arrested during the riot.

        That's a great thing to call for if you are trying to whip up a crowd, but it's a legal impossibility and Mr. Lynch and Ms. Frierson know it. The mayor and the city couldn't grant a blanket “amnesty,” even if they wanted to. They can't even grant expungements. Only the court can do that, and only if the person with the conviction requests it.

        If the leaders of the Black United Front really cared about the young people who may have trouble getting jobs or educations because they were arrested during the riots, you'd think they would have counseled them to seek expungements months ago.

        They didn't, but now CAN is. The city prosecutor says he won't object to expungements for those who are eligible, and lawyers from Legal Aid, the Cincinnati Bar and the Cincinnati Black Lawyers Association are offering their help for those who need it.

        The felons who burned businesses and assaulted police and passersby during those three days in April 2001, have long since been tried and convicted. They don't deserve any breaks and they aren't getting any.

        But for those who were dumb enough or unlucky enough to get picked up on minor offenses, expungement offers a chance to put their stupid mistakes behind them forever. CAN is doing the right thing to help them take it.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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