Hundreds of individuals are released from prison and back into communities annually across Ohio, and the Rev. Willie Peterson wants them to know where to seek help.
The NewBirth Project, a program designed to help ex-offenders re-enter society after a criminal conviction, hosted a summit Thursday to educate former offenders and members of the community. The Rev. Mr. Peterson is its executive director.
At the heart of the summit was Senate Bill 337 — new legislation addressing how criminal records can be sealed in Ohio. The new law will allow sealing two misdemeanor, or one misdemeanor and one felony conviction. Former laws only permitted the sealing of one felony or one misdemeanor conviction.
Mr. Peterson said new laws also are opening doors for employment opportunities in other ways for those who may have had legal issues in the past.
“My main goal is to get this information into the hands of the people who need it. There are rules that have changed that will allow them to go forward, make some changes and find the opportunities they need,” he said.
Mr. Peterson, who has been involved in re-entry programs for about 12 years, said most people are released from prison and told to find a job, then denied employment once potential employers find out about their criminal history. He said those same ex-offenders often cannot enroll in school or find decent housing, making it very difficult to become productive members of society.
“What they are telling these people is that we want you out of jail, but you can’t go out and do anything,” said Mr. Peterson. “This is a way to educate them that there are things and people in place to assist you.”
Ann Moncrief, who works with the NewBirth Project, saw legal trouble about 10 years ago when she was convicted of unauthorized use of funds, but the program and supportive people in it have helped her regain her footing.
“We all are ex-offenders because somewhere along the line we have offended someone. I want to reach back, and I want to help somebody,” she said.
Melvin Vaughn could not find employment after spending three years in prison for a low-level felony theft conviction, but as a member of the program, said he is well on his way to using his skills in the trades.
“This is going to pay off in the long run ... You have to put in the footwork. It’s not going to just come to you; it’s going to take footwork and reinventing your circle,” he said. “I wish a lot of the convicted felons would just put in the footwork and keep God first and just make it happen.”
Mr. Peterson said every member of the community has a stake in what the new laws and programs do for those released from prison.
“You have a stake in our community and should be made aware,” he said. “For those who are not ex-offenders this education is to help them help others. ... I just don’t believe the majority of people in the community don’t care.”