Attorneys will advise Evanston residents on the little-known legal service of clearing criminal records at the first Northern Cook County Informational Expungement Expo on May 21, according to a news release by the Youth Job Center of Evanston.
Dorothy Brown, clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, is scheduled to speak at the event at Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., which is geared toward educating the public on the process of clearing adult and juvenile criminal records, a process called expungement. The Expo will also offer presentations about facing challenges as criminal record holders. Those who preregister for the Expo will be offered help filling out expungement paperwork.
Jordan Burghardt, employment outreach coordinator of the Youth Job Center, said the upcoming Expo will be an opportunity to raise awareness for expungement as an option for people with criminal records to better their career prospects.
“The economy is just starting to pick up again, and some job seekers may find they have additional barriers to employment,” Burghardt said. “If they happened to have a criminal background or just a run-in with police, that’s something that may keep them from getting a job. We really wanted to make sure we’re giving the northern Cook County community all the options available.”
The Expo is sponsored by the Youth Job Center, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, the City of Evanston and the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, among others.
No records will be expunged or sealed at the Expo, but attorneys will be present to help those eligible to begin the expungement process.
Eligibility for expungement
Expungement usually applies to juvenile records, misdemeanors and dropped charges. If someone is charged and convicted of a crime, he or she will be ineligible for expungement. However, the record may be sealed instead and made inaccessible to the public.
Naria Santa Lucia, executive director of the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, said common misconceptions of criminal records may deter people from utilizing expungement to their advantage.
“People sometimes think that if charges are dropped, you don’t have a record,” Santa Lucia said. “Juveniles have this outlook of ‘I’m just a kid, it doesn’t matter,’ but even though juvenile records are sealed, they’re not expunged.”
Santa Lucia said anyone who has ever been arrested will have a record unless it is expunged.
The expungement process itself involves individuals going to the department that made the initial arrest, finding their records, noting everything on the record and going to the courthouse to fill out paperwork which then must be filed with the Clerk’s Office. The State’s Attorney’s Office is then allotted a certain time window to object to the expungement petition, which is usually done on points of policy like domestic violence. Individuals must then appear in court and defend their position, after which the judge chooses to deny or accept the petition. If the judge accepts the petition, the police then physically rip up the record.
A certain stigma is associated with possessing a criminal record, which may limit opportunities for individuals.
Josh Tepfer, a lawyer at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said even minor criminal convictions can affect many aspects of an individual’s life.
“Mistakes people made when they were young are being paid for down the road,” Tepfer said. “(A record) can affect where you live, what kind of education you receive, what jobs you can get.”
Amy Myrick, a doctoral student in sociology at NU, wrote her master’s thesis on the expungement process while looking at it from the perspective of people going through it in Chicago.
“It’s unbelievably important for people to be able to clear or restrict access to their criminal records, both for economic and personal reasons,” Myrick said in an email. “The main reason people come to the help desk is because they were turned down for a job based on a background check. It’s not something most employers are willing to look beyond, even if they are great candidates in other ways.”
Other people may have different personal reasons for wanting their records cleared, such as feeling wrongly accused or convicted of a crime, or if they feel their past misdemeanors don’t reflect who they are in the present, Myrick said. Such is the case with drug abusers who overcame their addictions, she added.
“It’s crucial for people to be allowed to move on instead of being defined by their past, which is what expungement and sealing are supposed to do,” Myrick said.
Reforming the process
Expungement is a common service for which many people are eligible to some degree or another. However, misunderstanding the process or even being ignorant of its existence often deters people from utilizing it.
Kate Winner, an AmeriCorps VISTA attorney who works at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, blames people’s lack of knowledge on the complexity of the process. Winner runs a help desk in Chicago courthouses, advising people on how to start the expungement procedure and helping them fill out paperwork.
She said the process could be simplified in a number of ways, including allowing people to petition to erase several arrest records at the same time.
“There are many ways in which the process could be simplified,” Winner said. “Every time you have an arrest you need a separate petition for expungement. It’s a lot of paperwork, and it racks up a lot of court fees. It’s incredibly expensive.”
Each petition costs $120. However, most people qualify for income-based fee waivers, Myrick said.
Though some attorneys believe the expungement process should be changed so that it is more accessible to low-income, low-educated people who are predisposed to crime, Tefner said the best thing people can do is inform the public about expungement services.
“We should do our best as a society to get information out to those people and get resources out to them,” he said. “Certainly information and education of the process would be helpful if it were more widely distributed to people through the city.”
Culture of clemency
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn voted to abolish the death penalty in March and granted 85 clemencies on April 22. Some hope that such executive decisions are signs that Illinois is gradually adopting a culture of clemency.
“It was clear that the overriding factor in Quinn deciding to abolish death penalty was the risk of executing an innocent person,” Tefner said. “Along with that comes the realization that sometimes even if someone is not entirely innocent of an event, there may be mitigating factors that didn’t come through, and the system is just not in a position to consider extreme sentences when they aren’t carried out in a logical or fair way across the board.”
Winner said reforming expungement laws in Illinois remains a pressing issue despite Quinn’s recent show of clemency.
“We are creating a population of pariahs who will never be able to find a job,” she said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t serve the individuals who have committed the crimes, and it doesn’t help our society. When people aren’t working, they are not helping the economy.”