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Offender initative program passes Illinois Senate

by Ellyn Fortino on April 3, 2012

A bill that would allow first-time, non-violent offenders to have their records expunged after completing a two-year probation program passed in the Illinois Senate and will now move to the House.

Sen. Kwame Raoul (13th) sponsored the measure, which passed with a non-partisan vote of 52-1 last week.

Raoul’s Offender Initiative Program would apply to arrestees convicted or indicted on charges of burglary, theft, forgery and possession of a stolen vehicle or an illegal drug.

The state’s attorney and a judge must approve entry into the program, which requires offenders to hold a job, perform community service, pass drug tests and make full restitution to the victim, among other obligations, according to a written statement from Senate President John Cullerton’s office.

“The Offender Initiative Program will open up opportunities for gainful employment to individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to changing their lives and atoning for past mistakes,” Raoul said in a press release.

“It will give offenders a powerful incentive to make restitution, seek treatment for substance abuse problems and avoid reentering the criminal justice system.”

Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) is one of the chief co-sponsors of the bill as it moves to the House.

Ford is the original sponsor of another non-related measure, HB 5723, that aims to revise the state’s Criminal Identification Act so more non-violent 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.

Ford said the Offender Initiative Program is not a spin-off of the Illinois sealing bill.

But, he said, “What’s important is that we attack the issues from all angles.”

Melissa Williams, criminal justice committee chairwoman of the NAACP’s Westside Branch and an advocate for Ford’s sealing bill, said the Offender Initiative Program would provide help to arrestees on the “front end.”

“We see it as we should be giving people the same opportunity on the back end after they serve the sentence to get their records sealed,” she said.

Ford said it’s going to take some time to make people feel comfortable with the idea of sealing non-violent offenses.

“It’s a tough vote for people to have to take, because on the face of it, it appears that it’s the wrong thing to do – hide the past offenses of people from the employers or prospective employers,” he said.

“I understand where people are sensitive to not wanting to vote for something like that. We have to educate them and make them feel comfortable with giving people a second chance.”

Most importantly, the public must participate in order for the bill to pass, he said.

“If the community, not just people with (criminal) backgrounds, mobilizes and allows for the elected officials to know this is the right thing to do, then this is how we will get it passed.”

Williams said the ex-offender community needs to know that it’s important to be involved in issues that are important to them.

“It’s your right to contact your state representative and to support or oppose certain legislation,” she said.

“People shouldn’t feel intimidated. The legislators really do take into account the phone calls and emails they receive.”

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