By Alyssa Pawluk
Robin Finger is one of many people throughout the Mahoning Valley striving to find employment after emerging from the penal system.
“I struggled a lot, you know, in finding employment. I know I’m well educated, and I’m rounded,” Finger said. “I can develop programs and even help support students and their education because I believe education is important, and it’s the key. I’ve handled caseloads, and I can’t even get a mere case management position.”
She was imprisoned in Cleveland for four years beginning in 2005 and has been trying to find employment since her release. She graduated from Youngstown State University summa cum laude in May with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“I’ve worked hard to turn my life around. I know that it takes a lot of hard work for me to get ahead,” she said. “Now I would like to get a job, and it’s harder than most for me because of my past.”
Senate Bill 337 was signed into law on Sept. 29, 2012 creating a Certification of Qualification for Employment to help those with felonies or misdemeanors obtain employment.
Since then, several civil groups throughout communities in the state have been holding clinics to help those sign up to receive the certificates and explain its process to those who need it.
The city’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, the Home for Good Re-Entry Resource Referral Program and United Returning Citizens, Inc. — all based downtown — have been holding monthly clinics in the Mahoning Valley since the spring of 2015 with collaboration from other groups in Ohio.
Finger attended a clinic held last Saturday at the Rockford Village Community Center. She said she’s pursuing a CQE to improve her chances of finding a job.
“There’s no real way that you can pay your debt to society with the time. To me that was creating the debt,” Finger said. “That’s the only solution that I can find as to why I’m not forgiven.”
Raymond Hartsough, a YSU alumnus, currently attends Akron Law School and works with CIRV, URC and Homes for Good to ensure the clinics are successful. He said employers don’t often hire those with a criminal past because they view it as a risk.
“If you’re an employer, your job is to maximize assets and minimize liabilities. If you’re hiring someone with a criminal record, that’s a huge liability. That’s one of the reasons people just don’t get jobs,” Hartsough said. “An employer isn’t just willing to take that kind of a responsibility on.”
Lola Simmons, executive director of Home for Good, said the agency holds these clinics the last Saturday of every month.
“We are trying to make it so that it hits home with people, and they can share the information. And it’s easier to know that they can go there and try to get these things done,” she said. “We engage with the Akron Law School. Because it was so successful in Summit County, that’s why we needed to expand it.”
Currently, Ohio is the only state that offers a program providing returning citizens with certifications that help them obtain employment.
“If it’s successful in the state of Ohio, it can expand to other states in the union,” Simmons said. “We’re just trying to expand the program here, so people will have a source and a resource.”
Hartsough said there has been a decrease in crime and unemployment as a result of the Akron clinics, and it positively affects those who are signing up for the clinics.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to do here is build a stronger community,” Hartsough said. “In the Youngstown area, we have a lot higher unemployment rate and a lot higher crime rate, so we can have more of an impact with these clinics. If we can really get these clinics to take off, we can put more people back to work, we can get more people in a position where they can take care of themselves and their families, which ultimately leads to a stronger community.”
The CQEs go alongside the criminal record. Employers can still see the record, but they will no longer be found liable for negligent hiring.
“If someone was going to do something criminal while they were on the job, then the employer would be exonerated from that negligent hiring or negligent liability standard,” Hartsough said.
Employers can also receive a temporary Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit.
To qualify for the CQE, applicants must have finished their entire sentence — including probation — at least six months ago if their offense was a misdemeanor, or 12 months ago if it was a felony. Once earned, it stays with them as long as they remain lawful.
“The CQE is something where once you receive it, you don’t get rid of it unless you commit another crime,” Hartsough said. “If you do commit another crime and you’re convicted of the crime, then you will lose your CQE.”
Hartsough said the CQEs lift collateral sanctions of those with criminal records and give people the opportunity to stand before licensing boards.
Finger said she hopes to get licensed as a social worker. She took on duties as a student note-taker and a tutor during her time at YSU.
“There’s always a way to give back if that’s what you truly set out to do,” Finger said. “I just feel that when I watch other people succeed, that’s what makes me feel good, that I was a part of that process. When I give back it makes me feel good, and I forget about my struggles.”
She said she doesn’t regret her past, but she’s ready to move on.
“My experience, I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world,” Finger said. “Sometimes you gotta go through some things to get to where you need to be.”
Finger encourages those who are reintegrating into society to prepare themselves for what is to come and to never give up trying.
“Those who aspire to do better with their lives, they run into these dilemmas, and the only thing that I can say is that it takes hard work and you just have to be willing to do it. You got to have the patience and the tolerance, the understanding and acceptance of your situation,” Finger said. “Do I get depressed? Yeah. Am I down a lot? Yes, I am. But, I still try and put my best foot forward, the reason being because I do have people who believe in me. Is it hard work? Yes. Roll up your sleeves and strap up your boots because we’re going to trudge a long destiny.”