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Giving ex-offenders a clean slate

By La Risa Lynch Contributing Writer | Last updated: May 20, 2013 - 3:54:17 PM

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Forum provides advice for clearing, sealing criminal records

CHICAGO ( - A trip to a suburban mall with a friend didn’t go as planned for Kesha Scott.

Ms. Scott, 36, found herself in handcuffs and facing criminal retail theft charges when her friend decided to shoplift.

“They took both of us,” recalled Ms. Scott, who insists she had no part in the theft.

After six years, Ms. Smith thought the incident was behind her. But when her health care job of eight years did a background check, her past caught up with her. She lost her $15 an hour job and now makes minimum wage. She’s unable to find a decent paying job or go back to school.

“It is really hard,” said the mother of five, who split up her children in order to make ends meet. “I’ve been in heath care for 12 years (and) I want to see if I can get the retail theft sealed.”

Ms. Smith hopes expunging her records will give her a clean slate to rebuild her life. She is among 3.9 million Illinois residents denied opportunities for decent employment and housing because of criminal records.

Those records have now become a life prison sentence for past mistakes ex-offenders are desperately trying to move past. In Cook County alone 31,000 ex-offenders released from the Illinois Department of Corrections return to communities facing chronic joblessness.

Safer Foundation provided information at forum. Photos: LaRisa Lynch
Two community groups want to change that. The Nation of Islam’s National Prison Reform Ministry and Gathering Point Community Council held an April 13 information session on expunging and sealing certain criminal records. They explained what crimes can be expunged and other relief such as clemency, pardons and certificates of good conduct ex-offenders can take advantage of.

The event was a precursor to a June 8 expungement summit sponsored by Cook County’s Circuit Court Clerk’s office. The summit will be held at New Faith Baptist Church International in Matteson, Ill.

This information session was about giving ex-offenders hope, said Richard Wooten, Gather Point Community Council’s executive director. Black communities, he explained, are already under siege by high crime and low performing schools. Adding the burden of a criminal background only perpetuates a cycle of despair.

“What we are doing today (is) to open up some doors and some opportunities and educate people on what they can do with their lives if they really wanted to change their life,” said Mr. Wooten.

Having a criminal record has broader implications than the average citizen or lawmakers know, said Anthony Lowery, of the Safer Foundation, an ex-offender advocacy group. Criminal records, he explained, prevent people from obtaining jobs, housing and college financial aid.

“The criminal record is the new Jim Crow where it permanently disenfranchises or creates … second class citizens who are legally denied opportunities … years after they have completed their sentences and been on good behavior,” said Mr. Lowery, the foundation’s policy and advocacy director.

Research has shown when ex-offenders get jobs “the chances of them going back to prison or committing new crime diminishes greatly,” Mr. Lowery said, noting the recidivism rate for the Illinois Department of Corrections is 47 percent.

He estimates the recidivism rate for Blacks is just as high. And the chances of recidivism is much higher—75 percent—in the first two years after release.

“People have to understand to move forward in life and to get opportunities, the way it is set up now is you have to have a clean record,” he said.

Safer Foundation is working on legislation to expand laws on what crimes can be sealed. He said there was a time when unlawful use of a weapon was an expungeable offense, but today lawmakers want to be tough on crime. However, Mr. Lowery argued lawmakers don’t understand the impact these laws have on families and individuals wanting to turn their life around.

Safer Foundation wants felony convictions for retail theft, burglary, and possession with intent to be sealable offensives within a certain time frame.

Additionally, his organization wants the city’s public housing agency to decrease the wait time before ex-offenders can apply for housing or move in with relatives living in public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority mandates ex-offenders must wait five years before applying for housing. That wait, Mr. Lowery explains, hinders juvenile offenders from being reunited with their families at a very critical time as they need a supportive network upon release from jail.

“The biggest thing with us is to provide opportunity, but also educate our community as far as the need people with criminal records have,” he said.

The June expungement summit hosted by Circuit Court Clerk’s office is for both adults and juveniles. But the head of that office, Dorothy Brown, noted that many juveniles are not taking advantage of this service. Cook County has 10,000 juveniles found delinquent a year, but only 100 annually request to have their records expunged or sealed.

Most adults, Brown said, mistakably believe that their juvenile records are sealed. But certain agencies like schools, children services, law enforcement and park districts can still access juvenile records of adults.

At 17, certain misdemeanors can be expunged immediately if “delinquent found” youth are not facing other criminal charges. However DUI, first degree murder and sexual offense of a minor are not expungeable or sealable.

“At age 21, a person that committed a juvenile offense can get everything else cleaned off their record,” Ms. Brown said. “That means manslaughter, second degree murder—all that stuff comes off your record as an expungement.” Ms. Brown said the obvious reason youth should seek expungement is to level the playing field when it comes to employment in a tough labor market.

“But at least you take away that barrier and then you become equally competitive for being able to get a good job so you can take care of yourself and your family,” Ms. Brown said. The tide may be turning, however, when it comes to hiring non-violent ex-offenders.

Some companies and local governments now realize the economic benefit in hiring ex-offenders. Helping ex-offenders reintegrate back into society eases the burden on social services, reduces recidivism and contributes to a community’s tax base. It costs taxpayers $225 million to incarcerate those who reoffend due to lack of employment and housing.

The Chicago Transit Authority is one government agency that is looking at employing ex-offenders. The CTA has a nine- and 12-month apprenticeship program for ex-offenders to work on its rail and buses. The goal is to help ex-offenders rebuild their work history while identifying quality job candidates.

The Westside Health Authority is one of two groups the CTA has partnered to screen possible applicants. WHA’s Chervondra Lenior says the biggest fear most ex-offenders have is the phrase criminal background check. She said many won’t apply for jobs if a company requires a background check. WHA coaches ex-offenders on how to turn their criminal histories into relatable work skills.

“I tell people … turn your background to the good,” said Ms. Lenior, WHA’s job placement specialist. “If you were a drug dealer you are able to be a manager because you are managing people on the corner. So that is turning your background around to work for you. That’s our way of trying to help them get back into society.”

While the prison system contributes to the mass incarceration of Blacks due to greed and punitive drug laws, the Nation of Islam’s Abdullah Muhammad said atonement from within is the first step in truly overcoming one’s past.

“The first phase of expungement is atonement with God,” said Min. Muhammad, the N.O.I. national prison reform minister. “The first person you want to make good with is your creator. Once you do that, you don’t care what nobody else thinks. “You are going through the process of expungement not hoping that your enemy is going to free you … (but) because (God) put it there,” said Mr. Muhammad, who also spent fi ve years in jail and plans to see if he is eligible for expungement.

Mr. Muhammad said if ex-offender records are ineligible for expungement, “… you need the knowledge of your God and some spiritual guidance in order for you not to turn back to crime.”