About 2,500 people came to the Forest Park Mall on June 7 for the Cook County Adult and Juvenile Expungement Summit, held at Living Word Christian Center, 7600 Roosevelt Road.
The 10th annual summit was an opportunity for ex-offenders who qualify to work with volunteer attorneys to file petitions for expungement or sealing of their criminal records. This is the first summit being held in the western suburbs.
Record sealing means the criminal conviction is removed from public access; the information can still be seen by government bodies and police departments. An expunged record is wiped clean completely.
More than 300 adults and 25 juveniles started petitions for expungement or record sealing with 164 volunteer attorneys, said Blanca Jara from the Circuit Court of Cook County’s press office. The event was the biggest ever, said Jara, with 50 percent more people applying for services than at the 2013 event.
Laws changed in the fall of 2013 for Illinois citizens with criminal convictions, said State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, who sponsored Public Act 098-0142.
“After four years of having no run-ins with the law or arrests, you are entitled to petition the court for a sealing of your records,” Ford said. “The courts rarely, if ever, turn anyone down who qualifies to have their records sealed.”
It takes 90-120 days to expunge or seal a record.
Since 2000, the number of adult expungment petitions allowed by the courts has risen from 6,186 to 8,439 in 2013. The number of juvenile cases filed last year was 5,994.
“Every year thousands of individuals have been able to gain fresh starts,” Jara said. “The public is becoming more knowledgeable about second chance opportunities made available through expungement or sealing.”
Volunteer lawyers came from as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan to help with the event. Other lawyers from Cabrini Green Legal Services were present. Ten judges also volunteered.
“We are all here to help you get the information and assistance you need,” said Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.
It’s all about employability, Ford said. An ex-offender who can’t get a job because of a long-past conviction on their record is a burden to society, taxpayers and at risk for recidivism, Ford has said.
“The goal is to have the most qualified people in the work force,” he said. “Once they have completed their sentences, they should have opportunities.”
“Ronald Reagan once said, ‘The best social service is a job,'” Ford added.
A list of 200 national and local companies that hire ex-offenders was given to each participant. The list included the city of Chicago, Walmart, Petco, and Jewel-Osco.
“If your record is expunged or sealed, you can legally check ‘no’ on job applications, where it is asked if you have ever been convicted of a crime,” Brown told a panel audience.
Felonies that can be sealed after four years of keeping one’s nose clean include theft, retail theft, burglary, possession with intent to deliver, possession of stolen motor vehicle, deceptive practice and forgery. The fees are $120 for adults and $124 for juveniles per petition.
“Every case is completely different,” said Jara. Some prostitution and drug cases are expungeable, she said. However, drug petitioners must pass a drug test.
The event also featured an ex-offender job information seminar. Staff from Living Word’s Joseph Business school gave presentations on setting achievable goals, job searching, resume writing, small business development, and technology training.
Even if an ex-offender cannot qualify for expungement or sealing of records, he or she may qualify for a “certificate of good conduct” or “relief from disability,” Clerk Brown said. These are court-granted documents saying that, according to the circuit court, the offender is rehabilitated as a matter of law. This allows job applicants with a long history of staying out of trouble to apply for jobs with more stringent rules, such as schools, park districts and transit companies. Furthermore, an employer is protected from third-party lawsuits if an ex-offender has a certificate of good conduct. Certain convictions, such as a class X felony, any felony that resulted in physical harm, or a conviction for aggravated DUI or aggravated domestic battery are not eligible. Registered sex offenders and arsonists also do not qualify for a certificate of good conduct.
“We want you to know that we are all here today to support you in your efforts to get a second chance at becoming productive, law-abiding citizens,” Brown said.
For more information, log onto www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org.