19 Mar 2019

Expungement: Opening Doors, One Person at a Time

Expungement: Opening Doors, One Person at a Time

For Angel, it wasn’t enough that he wanted to get a job. He had a criminal record, and having a record made it hard for him to get a job. The same is true for many men and women: They face barriers to employment mobility and accessing the mainstream economy for the same reason. Many, in fact, also face challenges when it comes to securing housing, getting into a college, or securing placement for internships.

Angel, who participated in ALSO's expungement workshop.

It doesn’t have to be that way - and for Angel and others who have come to ALSO to see if they could get their record expunged or sealed, there is an alternative. ALSO works closely with individuals through a three-step process that includes preparing their documents, filing for expungement or sealing and, if necessary, resolving remaining issues at a court hearing.

“Every single case can hold someone back,” says Mary Seighman, Director of Policy and Justice Initiatives at ALSO. “Getting these cases expunged and sealed really makes a difference to people.”

In the last two years,  ALSO has helped staff and community members get on the path to expunging and sealing their criminal records through workshops and a process that makes it possible. When records are expunged in Illinois, they no longer appear on one’s records; sealed records are generally unavailable without a court order. Some cases - for example, domestic battery, sexual assault, DUI, and animal cruelty - cannot be expunged or sealed.ALSO held expungement workshops in the spring of 2017, and in August and September of 2018. The 2018 workshops served people working with the city-wide Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P), in partnership with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. ALSO and INVC outreach worker staff were served by the first workshop, with the September workshop open to all eight CP4P citywide partnering organizations, which work in communities most impacted by gun violence.

People looking to have their records expunged also have the opportunity to get information about the process from Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which runs an Expungement Help Desk at the Daley Center in downtown Chicago for 12 hours a week.

As a result of its first expungement and sealing workshop and filing days in 2017, ALSO assisted with the expungement of 36 cases. In 2018, ALSO assisted almost 20 staff, participants, and community members with filing for the expungement and sealing of over 315 cases.

“Now, we always bring up expungement as an option to people we serve,” adds Maribel Romero, Lead Case Manager at ALSO. “It can be like the first step through the door when they are applying for a job or trying to get a place to live.”

Expungement is not just an isolated or local strategy. It is an area of emphasis in many jurisdictions around the country. An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record or conviction record. In the last decade, more than 30 states have passed laws that create or expand remedies for criminal records, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice center research center based in New York City. In Illinois, changes in state laws have greatly increased the number of individuals eligible for expungement over the last several years.

Making it Happen

Angel moved to Humboldt Park in 1985, when he was nine years old. “I got involved in the street lifestyle when I was 10. Over the years, I had various misdemeanors. Because of that, I often had a hard time getting jobs,” he says.

He participated in the 2017 expungement workshop at ALSO, which led to expungement of seven cases from his record. Later, he found a job working at O’Hare Airport.

Angel and others who seek expungement of their records engage in a three-step process at ALSO that the organization calls a “pro se accompaniment model.”

To begin the expungement process, workshop participants pick up copies of their RAP (Record of Arrest and Prosecution) sheet at the police station at 35th and Michigan. Once they come to ALSO, they talk to a representative of the Cook County Clerk of Court, who checks for discrepancies between the RAP sheet and court records. Then applicants meet with a volunteer attorney. In 2018, ALSO partnered with the Chicago Legal Clinic, which provided pro bono legal assistance to petitioners at workshops, and on filing days at the courthouse. Volunteer attorneys consult with participants and prepare petitions for expungement and sealing.

Once a participant’s petitions are ready, they are accompanied to the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court at the Daley Center court by staff. Some types of cases are automatically eligible for a waiver of court filing fees. In certain cases, filing fees are required. In these cases, an individual can request waiver of fees based on income. For those who do not qualify for either type of waiver, filing fees can be prohibitively expensive -- from $160 or higher per petition, and can cost over $400 depending on the number of petitions an individual is filing. To facilitate the filing of petitions and to unburden participants from these costs. ALSO has paid the filing fees for any petitioner who does not qualify for a fee waiver.

In the event that the state files an objection that necessitates a hearing, ALSO accompanies participants in court, and the Chicago Legal Clinic represents petitioners at these hearings.

Typically, applicants will find out whether their records have been expunged or sealed within a few months.

One of the things that distinguishes ALSO’s work in this area is the attention it gives to everyone who wants to see their records expunged. The process of applying for expungement, learning what one needs and navigating a legal process can be daunting for anyone not used to finding their way through the system. By working with participants every step of the way and accompanying them to the Daley Center and, if necessary, in court, the program in effect says “we’ve got your back.” “We believe in holistic support for the individuals we serve, and that means doing more than simply completing petitions. We provide accompaniment and support throughout the process, “ says Seighman.

Partners

ALSO has worked closely with several partners to make these workshops happen, including the Chicago Legal Clinic, and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. All are outspoken about the potential benefits of expungement.

“There’s a pretty huge number of people who have some kind of criminal record, so there’s a great need for expungement services,” says Drew Curle, an attorney with the Chicago Legal Clinic. “People go through this process to remove barriers for themselves and give them confidence that they can apply for jobs and not just get turned down. “

Nelson, like Angel, also participated in an expungement workshop at ALSO. Nelson, an outreach worker who works with youth at ALSO, says that, “Going through the expungement process gave me peace of mind. I would tell anyone who’s eligible not to put it off until tomorrow. You should do it. When it happens, it’s a real relief.”

There are likely thousands of people in Chicago alone who would benefit from having their records expunged or sealed. At a time when many who are incarcerated struggle to reintegrate into our communities, expungement gives people a better chance to turn around their lives.

These days, Angel, a father of five, is remarried and is struggling with an injury that has required numerous surgeries. He says he would like to see if he can work as a mentor, in case management, or as an outreach worker. He says that having his record expunged has already benefited him.

“Expungement can make people feel better about themselves,” he says. “It can help open doors.”

For more information about ALSO’s expungement work, contact Mary Seighman, Director of Policy and Justice Initiatives at ALSO, at mseighman@also-chicago.org

Recap:

ALSO works closely with individuals through a three-step process that includes preparing their documents, filing for expungement or sealing and, if necessary, resolving remaining issues at a court hearing.

In the last two years, ALSO has helped staff and community members get on the path to expunging and sealing their criminal records through workshops and a process that makes it possible.

By working with participants every step of the way, the expungement program in effect says “we’ve got your back.”

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