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Cover Story: David Singleton and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center advocate justice for all

And Just Us for All...

By Kathy Y. Wilson · March 15th, 2006 · Cover Story
  Deborah Ranker, an OJPC non-attorney advocate, advises Gregory Bell at OJPC's Tuesday legal clinic at Our Daily Bread.
Matt Borgerding

Deborah Ranker, an OJPC non-attorney advocate, advises Gregory Bell at OJPC's Tuesday legal clinic at Our Daily Bread.

The mural in the children's playroom of Our Daily Bread on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine lies to the walk-in clients of the legal clinic hosted by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC).

"You're off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting so ... get on your way!" it exclaims against a hand-drawn, cartoonish backdrop. The room doubles as the clinic's Tuesday-only makeshift digs.

Truth is, most of the mostly men who amble in, sniff it out and sign up to consult legal advice are already in the throes of defeat.

They strain to re-enter society shadowed, in some cases, by decades-old felonies prohibiting them from gainful employment and adequate housing. Many are released from prison misinformed about their voting rights.

OJPC's clientele this day run the gamut from lone black men who appear indigent to a biracial couple, a white man who looks like an office equipment salesman and a middle-aged white man who says he's a certified teacher.

Convicted on two of three 1974 drug offenses, Gregory Bell of Westwood says he served 18 months for the charges but that they still haunt him to this day. He saw the clinic's sign in early February and stepped in to ask if the felonies can be expunged from his record.

"That's when I was a teen-ager," Bell says of his mistakes. "Here I am 52 years old and you still hold that against me as though I can't change my life? I haven't caught a drug case since (1974). I ain't had a weed ticket or nothing.

"When people tell me they can't hire you because of your record, that's bullshit. To me, you're keeping people back."

Bell says after he worked at Glencare Nursing Home for 60 days, his 1974 convictions were disclosed during a routine record check. He lost his job.

"I look at it like this: When the stepping stone gets cut off, it's over," Bell says. "I've got kids here. If I can't get a job here, it's pitiful."

All told, Bell says his record kept him from two to three jobs over the years.

Another man comes in also seeking advice on expunging his record. After the client tells his story, OJPC Executive Director David Singleton is blunt.

"You're not gonna be eligible for expungement," Singleton says.

Before he can finish his explanation, the client is clearly agitated.

Singleton retains his cool and control of the conversation. He sticks to the law.

"Let me just explain something to you," Singleton says, raising his left hand as if to calm and halt the client's squirming.

The law around expungement is complicated and confusing, he says. Only "first offenders" are eligible -- as defined by state statutes, those are "convicted of an offense in this state or any other jurisdiction and who previously or subsequently have not been convicted of the same or different offense in this state or any other jurisdiction."

Violent crimes, first- or second-degree felonies, sex offenses and convictions accompanying mandatory prison terms or those involving child endangerment are not eligible for expungement. This leaves a narrow field of eligibility.

Still, the client has his own laws to explain.

"If I'ma mice and somebody throws some cheese out there, I'ma get it 'cause it's the only cheese available," he says.

This is ghetto code for: I will survive the best way I can even if it means continued illicit behavior. This is the language of the invisible among us.

'I've never felt richer'
While many clients feel this way, few articulate it so plainly. Most merely disappear again as disenfranchised as ever from the law they once violated but which they hope will be magically inclusive and forgiving.

After a brief exchange, the lanky man leaves the same way he came in -- frustrated. So is Singleton.

"This is one of the most frustrating pieces of the advocacy we do is getting records expunged," Singleton says in a lull between clients. "You can only get expungement under very narrow circumstances. I'm not saying anybody with serious violent offenses should have their records expunged. That guy only had thefts. He's screwed."

Still, Singleton reveals one of his many legal gifts. He turns aggravation into an outcome, a potential result. He isn't beleaguered or defeated.

For him, the law comprises the possibilities of justice and he's a master legal interpreter.

"We're looking at doing some litigation around people who have really old records," he says. "There shouldn't be blanket rules. We don't like blanket rules."

Because of those blanket rules, Singleton says, many ex-felons and current convicts are left out in the cold, short shrifted by laws that are never fully and correctly interpreted or altered for them.

This population of veritably invisible people therefore stays off the radar by never fully entering the workforce. They don't vote, so social and political policies don't budge to suit them.

Singleton says this cycle feeds the status quo beast, amounting to a sifting of the poor and the weak into a separate and pitiful category of the unequal and the blamed.

"The law protects the status quo," Singleton says. "The status quo disempowers poor people and poor people of color, and that's the brunt of the work that we do."

This is the pool from which OJPC draws its clientele and from whom Singleton draws his inspiration. The advice it doles out and any cases OJPC might take during its clinics (there's a second one at Freestore/Foodbank on Thursdays) are free. A $50 filing fee is waived if clients qualify under federal poverty guidelines.

"Got somebody else," he says, and he's off to tend to another client. "Hey, sir! I'm David Singleton. This is the legal clinic, and I'm one of the lawyers here. How ya doin'?"

Together, Singleton and Deborah Ranker, OJPC's development coordinator and non-attorney advocate, see 12 clients in two hours. They explain and re-explain the basics of expungement and make referrals to Legal Aid Society.

Though OJPC is funded via the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the city and private donors, it helps that Singleton, 39, is exuberant about his work. The Harvard Law School graduate and classmate of U.S.

Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.) made $24,530 last year.

"And I've never felt richer," he says.

Married nine years, Singleton's wife, Verna Williams, is a tenured law professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Law. They have a young daughter.

"Last year was a hard year," Singleton says of the center's fiscal health. "My wife was OK with me not paying myself for a certain period of time."

Born in Brooklyn and raised in North Carolina by a police officer and a social worker, Singleton returned to New York, the Bronx, when he was 17 years old.

"I was just blown away," he says of the early 1980s havoc wreaked by crack cocaine and Reaganomics on America's urban core. "There's so much luck in the circumstances. I know it's a platitude, but I could've been easily not educated well and in the joint. That's when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and serve the community. It just got driven home looking back at my community."

Singleton says his life's work has taken shape in Cincinnati despite the professional classism rampant here. His work might even be bolstered because of it.

"It's very hard in Cincinnati, especially because it's so conservative," he says. "The big law firms here don't lend a hand. They might help with Legal Aid, but not us."

His reward comes in the fight.

"The flip side is I've never been anyplace that I've been rewarded as a civil rights lawyer," he says. "I've come to enjoy being here because of the challenges our clients face. If we think we've got a bona fide legal issue and a client in need, we're gonna take it on."

'We fight for people'
Singleton sits in his cramped, box-shaped Vine Street office downtown a few days before his stint at the legal clinic. He runs OJPC with a bare-bones crew: Ranker, whom he says is "one of the most committed, hard-working social justice oriented people I know"; Sheila Donaldson Johnson, who doubles as the office manager and paralegal who Singleton says beat a 20-year heroin addiction, graduated from UC with a bachelor's degree and has been drug-free for 12 years; and Stephen JohnsonGrove, OJPC's other staff attorney, who formerly ran legal clinics for homeless veterans in Philadelphia and whom Singleton calls "a young lawyer with a big heart and huge drive."

For all its David-and-Goliath politics, OJPC is basically a poor man's law firm, though not the predatory brand like those hawking themselves during late-night reruns or between daytime self-help shows.

According to Ranker, OJPC's legal clinic provided legal representation, advice and referral services to 442 clients last year, what some might consider society's dregs: sex offenders, child support defendants, record expungements and people terminated or evicted because of criminal backgrounds.

The clinic helped 33 first-time, nonviolent offenders expunge their criminal records, and 41 clients got OJPC's legal help with their child support cases. And in re-entry issues including specific parole conditions that can interfere with employment and housing, Ranker says the clinic did advocacy work on behalf of 44 clients in 2005.

The center recently filed and won a suit to reinstate a student, a former felon, to a paralegal school.

While Singleton talks passionately but evenly about OJPC's present and past advocacy suits on behalf of Lebanon Correctional Institution inmates, a Dayton sex offender and the urban myths surrounding Ohio felons who don't vote, the distracting landscape of his office is suddenly claustrophobic.

He has a corner office, all right, but visitors are hard pressed to see a corner of it that's not crowded with belching expand-o-files, toppling boxes and cascades of white, letter-sized papers.

There are clean shirts hanging under dry cleaner plastic on the back of the door, displaced and distressed black dress shoes are strewn on the floor and a pair of well-worn navy dress slacks with lap creases are draped over the back of a chair. Imposing black binders line a window sill.

Singleton wears dirty Timberlands, wrinkled jeans and a button-down shirt, a variation of which he'd later wear at Our Daily Bread. He is stocky but fit, wears a closely shaven head and glasses. On the telephone he sounds strangely like new State Sen. Eric Kearney.

"I've been told that before," he says.

Like Kearney, Singleton is a civic-minded and well-educated black man who's put his Ivy League education to work for social justice and economic equality.

Singleton graduated in 1987 from Duke University and in 1991 from Harvard University Law School, both cum laude. In 1991 he received the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, a two-year designation pairing crème de la crème law students generally with legal groups working in legal advocacy. Singleton spent two years as a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center for the Homeless in New York City.

He defended indigent criminal defendants at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C. and briefly was an associate at Cincinnati's Thompson Hine firm after moving here in July 2001.

"I've been a public interest lawyer my entire life until the first 10 months I was here," Singleton says. "I wound up in a big firm and it was the worst 10 months of my life."

In July 2002 Singleton took over OJPC, then known as the Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC). The center changed its name last fall primarily because it changed its focus, but also to attract reluctant funders.

"We're no longer just doing prison work," he says. "We're now doing work in the community, plus it was hard to do fund-raising with 'prison' in the name."

This classism is rampant not only among OJPC's potential financial supporters but also among attorneys averse to pro bono work. In a later e-mail clarifying some OJPC legal cases, Singleton "vents" his aggravation with the large law firms in Cincinnati that ignore the need to train attorneys to do free community-based work.

"Now, to be fair, the local firms will tell you that they actively participate in Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor," Singleton writes. "VLP, which was started by the Legal Aid Society, handles legal services cases (landlord/tenant eviction cases, family law matters, etc.) that Legal Aid can't handle for certain reasons. VLP provides a great service to this community -- no question about that -- but the work is relatively 'safe' from a political standpoint and does not challenge the status quo as we do.

"I think there are some folks in the firm who get what we are doing and want to help and are helping in their own way. But I think the vast majority of lawyers in Cincinnati who might be inclined to help us are afraid of how they would be viewed if it became known that they were fighting for the rights of prisoners or ex-offenders (or worse, sex offenders); they fear losing business by taking a stand that might be controversial to some."

The Cincinnati Bar Association doesn't have a committee specifically dedicated to pro bono work.

According to Mina Jones Jefferson, assistant dean of professional development at UC's College of Law, the bias against pro bono work that extends beyond law school often begins there and can be difficult to reverse.

"Law students get their backs up," Jefferson says. " 'Why should I go and help the under-served? They deserve their station in life.' Law school is a great equalizer. We all have to come through law school to get to the law, and that's why pro bono work should be mandatory.

Jefferson argues that pro bono work could actually help the legal profession in terms of burnout and turnover.

"Most of us aren't privileged to do the work that a David Singleton does," she says. "I'm just fascinated by the work he does."

So the brunt of that work won't continually fall to a few, Jefferson says the law school this academic year instituted a domestic violence legal clinic and a Sixth Circuit appellate practice clinic.

Through the Volunteer Opportunities Panel Program, UC students can also volunteer with OJPC for 15 hours of legal work per quarter. The purpose is "to further professional development through public service," Jefferson says.

"It will make them view pro bono work as a professional responsibility," she says. "I'm a purist in that pro bono work should be the delivery of legal services, not community work we're called to do as citizens. I don't consider Habitat for Humanity to be pro bono work."

Likewise, Singleton says there's no confusion about OJPC's public interest work.

"We fight for people who no one else cares about," he says. "We want our clients to be treated fairly, to be given a chance. We are leaders. We're not gonna put our fingers up in the wind to see what's popular."

'The law is the law'
No one knows better than the Ohio Justice and Policy Center staff what's the least popular legal work going: defending prisoners, particularly sex offenders.

Last October, OJPC reached a settlement with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction over a 2003 class action suit alleging that Ohio's health-care system for its 45,000 prisoners was unconstitutional. The state will pay $20 million to fix emergency care and testing and to hire 300 medical personnel over four years.

Buoyed by the Iowa County Attorneys Association's recent call for the Iowa Legislature to repeal a law prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of daycare facilities and schools, the OJPC in late January called for the Ohio Legislature also to repeal Ohio's existing residency restrictions.

In their statement, the Iowa lawyers said there was "no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children." In fact, Singleton says existing laws make it "more likely that sex offenders will register false addresses and avoid monitoring."

Currently, in Mikaloff v. Walsh, OJPC represents Lane Mikaloff, an Akron sex offender who's free after incarceration for a 1986 rape conviction. He was sentenced in 1987, well before the rule requiring sex offenders to live at least 1,000 feet away from schools took effect in July 2003.

Mikaloff, who's contesting an eviction order, was paroled in 2002, a year before the rule went into effect. Singleton says a parole officer approved the address -- a tiny guesthouse Mikaloff shares with his wife and four children on his mother's property -- and didn't voice concerns about his living in close proximity to a school.

"The basis for the suit is that Mikaloff is being punished yet again, nearly 20 years after he committed his offense, by being required to move," Singleton says. "They can't afford to move anywhere. He will become homeless if he is evicted, which would undermine the ability of the sheriff to know his whereabouts."

Singleton calls the law "counterproductive." It's one of those times when the broad application of the law isn't so appealing.

"We've taken a lot of heat, even from our friends, for this lawsuit," Singleton says. "I think we're moving the public on this."

Like Sisyphus and that boulder, it can be uphill all over again.

"Sex offenders will always be pariahs, but people are realizing this law makes no sense," Singleton says of the Ohio statute requiring sex offenders to live 1,000 feet away from schools. Bus stops might soon be added.

(For more background on this issue, see "Postcards from the Edge," issue of Jan. 12-18, 2005.)

Barbara Gould, an OJPC board member since she was moved by the Cincinnati Opera's staging of Dead Man Walking to join the national moratorium on the death penalty, says even she was challenged by the center's defense of sex offenders.

"When we deal with hard-hitting issues, any of us will be challenged," Gould says. "What I'm often reminded of by (attorney and board president) Al Gerhardstein and David Singleton is justice is justice and we can't throw anyone away. I don't think in any relationship or in politics we have to agree, but justice is justice and the law is the law, just like certain felons had the right to vote in the state of Ohio."

In 2004 Singleton's organization, still called PRAC, released findings that Ohio parole officers routinely misinformed prisoners of their voting rights after release. State law dictates the restoration of voting rights when convicts are released and that ex-offenders maintain voting rights under community supervision.

PRAC's report, however, said boards of elections statewide -- including Hamilton County's -- repeatedly provided erroneous voting rights information to researchers posing as former prisoners.

In its August 2004 federal lawsuit on behalf of advocacy groups for felons across Ohio, OJPC reached a compromise with state government.

"We wanted the state to send 100,000 notices all over the state (to ex-convicts)," Singleton says. "What they did was post signs in voter registration offices (informing voters of their rights). We weren't too happy about that."

Someone who assumes he doesn't have the right to vote won't likely be in a voter registration office.

"Through the media, we accomplished what we wanted," Singleton says, explaining that media outlets helped broadcast correct information about voting and registration.

This is when Singleton works hardest, confronting the conspiracy theorists -- prototypes of OJPC's client base -- buzzing about misconceptions and half-truths. Appearing on radio call-in shows, he says he heard callers saying voting was "the white man's way of keeping an eye on us and knowing our numbers."

"I'd say, 'First of all, you're talking about the census,' " Singleton he says. "I never could get through to them that that's what the government wants. It wants you to be confused and paranoid." ©



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