Expungement, record sealing event helps West Siders get jobs after leaving prison

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Austin resident Anthony Jefferson has been working over the past six years to expunge his criminal record. With help from the Monroe Foundation, he’s moving toward the clean slate he wants to achieve to secure employment.

The Monroe Foundation will be hosting an expungement and record sealing informational event from 10 a.m. t0 12 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, at Zoe Life Ministries International, at 5151 W. Madison St.

The event focuses on Austin residents, like Jefferson, who have been incarcerated.

“You know, I always felt like once you catch a felony, it’s with you for the rest of your life, but I was proven wrong,” he said.

In 2009, Jefferson faced his first felony when he was charged with drug possession of crack cocaine. He didn’t serve time but received probation. While on probation, he earned an associate’s degree in applied science from Lincoln Technical Institute.

Even with an associate’s degree, one that’s trained him to become an electrician, his criminal background still stopped him from finding a job.

“I was thinking that it probably would help me towards employment, but honestly, it didn’t,” Jefferson said.

Eventually, he returned to crime.

Then in 2014, Jefferson was charged with back-to-back drug felonies for delivery of heroin and served seven months in the DuPage County Jail.

After his first felony arrest, Jefferson learned of the Monroe Foundation’s efforts to help people get their criminal records expunged, but after failing over and over to get a job because of his background, Jefferson lost hope.

“I was so frustrated at that point. I turned back around, I just ended up being right back in the streets. I couldn’t find employment for the degree I got,” said Jefferson, now 47 years old.

In 2018, Jefferson began the process of expunging his records with help from the Monroe Foundation, a community development non-profit that focuses on low-income communities in Illinois.

So far, his first felony has been expunged, and he’s working to erase all three felonies from his record.

Jefferson started working as a part-time electrician six years ago after his second and third charges. But with those charges still on his record it was difficult. He has high hopes for what he can achieve once he has a clean record.

After starting down his own road to expungement, the Monroe Foundation offered Jefferson a part-time job as an outreach worker; he has worked the last five years for the foundation, reaching out to West Side communities like Austin and educating people just like him about the expungement process.

“I try to educate other people to know that you could change, you don’t have to wait until you get caught to change it, you can change it around now,” Jefferson said.

Otis Monroe, CEO and president of the Monroe Foundation, said stories like Jefferson’s are common, since a criminal background leaves people with few employment opportunities after they get out of prison.

“For the most part, there are very limited opportunities. You’re really at the mercy of an employer and whether they are willing to take a chance on giving an individual a fair chance at employment to support themselves and their families,” Monroe said.

Cynthia Cornelius, director of legal programs at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, will be presenting at Monday’s event. She said Illinois law is progressive but complex. Pre-rap sheet Day, as the event is called, aims to explain the process.

“People can expect to get very detailed information about the eligibility criteria for expungement and sealing, and an explanation of the process that occurs in the court. Because it’s not a quick fix. It takes several months for a person to go through the steps of getting their record cleared,” Cornelius said.

Illinois law requires that individuals be at least three years post release from their last sentence to be eligible for sealing or expungement of criminal records, but the event is intended for both individuals in the waiting period and beyond. And only certain crimes can be expunged or sealed.

Expunged records are essentially erased from public record, while sealing hides the record. Landlords and most employers cannot see sealed records, but law enforcement and the courts can.

After Monday’s event, members of the Monroe Foundation will meet with participants who need to get their rap sheets or criminal history reports from Chicago Police headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave.

The foundation pays the $16 fee that comes with requesting a Chicago Police rap sheet, and it also picks up rap sheets for participants once they’re available. Then, the foundation reconvenes with participants to explain their rap sheet and send their expungement cases to attorneys.

At the end of 2021, more than 16,000 people were on parole after being incarcerated in Illinois, according to a 2023 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. By 2023, about 40% of people released from prison in Illinois were back behind bars.

In Chicago, the need for expungement services is high.

“If it’s done correctly, meaning removing barriers to access to getting their records in the first place, it gives individuals a sense of hope and a sense of opportunity that they may be light at the end of their journey to redemption, ” Monroe said.

Monday’s event is part of the foundation’s “Getting Cleared Chicago” campaign that aims to break the generational cycle of recidivism; it’s funded by PNC Bank and The Chicago Community Trust.

Walk-ins and parents of juveniles with backgrounds of incarceration are welcome at Monday’s event.

There isn’t a specific date for the next pre-rap sheet day yet, but Monroe said it will take place this fall.

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