Illinois Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) and some West Side activists want to see the state’s Criminal Identification Act revised so more nonviolent crimes are invisible to the public during background checks to help reformed offenders get jobs and housing.
As the law stands now, only three felony offenses – prostitution, possession of cannabis, and possession of controlled substances – can be considered for sealing. When a record is sealed, it’s available to judges, law enforcement officials and government agencies, among others, but not the general public.
Currently, people with nonviolent convictions other than the main three cannot petition for a sealing, said attorney Beth Johnson with Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income Chicagoans.
“A lot of people benefit from the sealing law, but it’s narrowly limited at this time,” Johnson said. “Three felonies? That’s just crazy. There are hundreds of them.”
Ford, who’s in the process of crafting an amendment to Illinois’ expungement and sealing law, said the new legislation would allow people with other felonies to have a “fair chance” to go before a court and have a hearing.
Amending the sealing law is “about jobs and making sure citizens are able to enjoy democracy,” Ford said. “Right now when they have background checks, they are shut out of democracy. That’s not fair.”
State Rep. Constance “Connie” Howard (34th) and Sen. Annazette Collins (5th) are also involved in crafting a revised sealing law, said Melissa Williams, criminal justice committee chairwoman of the NAACP’s Westside Branch .
In Austin, there are many unemployed African-American males, Williams said, and “a lot of it has to do with the x’s on their back.”
“It looks like no one wants to remove the x’s for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Are they not supposed to have hope or a future?”
Williams, who also heads the Wiley Resource Center, a Lawndale-based legal support program for Illinois residents, stressed the issue of nonviolent ex-offenders being barred from jobs and housing is not just an Austin or West Side issue.
“These same things are going on in Rockford, Peoria and Moline,” Williams said. “This is a statewide piece, and it’s not just a racial piece.”
Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s Johnson said about one in three people in Illinois has a criminal record, and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted.
“People should get second chances,” Johnson said. “A record never goes away unless there is relief in the books.”
Mildred Wiley, board president of the group Austin Coming Together, said she’s in favor of an amended sealing law.
“Everyone needs an opportunity to change,” she said. “If you did your time and (are) ready to change, this legislation will give you the opportunity for your past not to be held against you.”
But Johnson said it’s challenging to move this type of legislation forward in Springfield.
She said people assume sealing a record is automatic, but that’s not true. Ex-offenders have to demonstrate in court they’ve changed and be at least four years removed from the conviction.
When asked if she thinks a revised sealing bill will pass this year, Johnson paused and said, “I don’t know. It’s always more difficult in elections to get these things passed. It’s hard to say.”
The NAACP’s Williams said she hopes the bill will pass. If not, “we’ll keep coming back year after year.”
Ford will hold a public town hall meeting Feb. 24 from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Center for Employment Training, 100 N. Western Ave., to explain what will be included in the amended bill and for community feedback.
“The goal is to hear testimonies about what problems people have with landing jobs with minor drug cases and simple offense,” Ford said.
“We want to make sure we capture as many instances where we find people are willing to be contributing citizens to our state.”
Town hall seats are limited. Please RSVP by calling 773-960-9269 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.