The 2015 Criminal & Traffic Expungement & Sealing Summit will be held at the Living Word Christian Center (LWCC) this Saturday, June 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, Dorothy Brown.  Last year’s event was a rousing success, serving over 2,000 participants. The summit is designed to clean up the records of ex-offenders so they will be eligible for employment.  It’s a tangible way to address the county’s high recidivism rate, which sees 65% of offenders returning to prison. 

LWCC is a logical host for the event. Pastor Bill Winston has been a leading force in ministering to prisoners and ex-offenders here in Illinois and in Alabama. His staff offers assistance before, during and after the summit, including the printing and distribution of handouts. 

The church is accessible by public transportation and has ample parking. It has large assembly areas and meeting rooms.  More important than its central location and large facility, the summit is connected with other LWCC ministries, such as Joseph Business College, W.E.C.A.R.E Reentry Services and Prison Ministry.

“Last year, the line was all the way around the mall by 6 a.m.,” recalled Pastor Derick Bright, Senior Leader of the Prison Ministry, “We stayed until 10 p.m. to make sure nobody left here angry. We had pro bono lawyers and judges. We took over the whole mall.”

Bright said ex-offenders must be at least one year removed from incarceration, to be eligible for the summit. “The participants are sorted by their criminal offense,” he noted, “and view a very informative power-point about what offenses can be expunged.” 

He believes many officials in the criminal justice system, including Sheriff Tom Dart, support the summit, so that ex-offenders can break the vicious cycle that leads to being locked-up again. Clerk Brown said, “I had the idea for hosting an expungement summit, when I first took office. I was invited to summits to serve on panels. They had a few attorneys there, but they had people standing outside freezing to death — 90% of them would find out their conviction wasn’t expungable.”

Brown said the basic rule of thumb is that felonies are not expungable, only misdemeanors, though there are a few exceptions. However, she is running a “full-service” summit in Forest Park. “The Illinois Prison Review Board will be there to tell people they can apply for executive clemency from the governor.” Brown wanted to hold a summit where people were treated like human beings and given the information they needed.

“We’re a cog in the wheel; we should be leading the summit. We hold the key to expungement.” Brown and her staff held their first summit in 2005 at Austin High School. Since then, her office has held summits on the north and south sides and at locations throughout the county. Last year, she decided it was time to hold a summit for the western suburbs. LWCC already had a prison ministry in place and asked to serve as host.

“Because of the size of their facility and how their phenomenal staff accommodated us and cooperated with us, it was a successful event,” Brown said. “This year, Bill Winston has put out commercials promoting the event and the church is distributing fliers.” Thanks to LWCC’s spaciousness, “Everyone gets a seat and they’re treated like human beings. I won’t even look at a facility unless it has a 2,000-seat auditorium. I don’t want people standing in the cold just to hear their conviction wasn’t expungable.”

Brown believes the current criminal justice system can be unfair to ex-offenders. 

“They’re penalized for doing time,” she said. “They may have turned their lives around. They want to take care of their families.” Some of these ex-offenders are still paying the price for a nonviolent crime. “The summit is a means of reducing recidivism because it gives people a chance to be legally employed.” It can also cut down on the street crime ex-offenders turn to when they can’t find work.

When Brown attends a summit, as she will this Saturday, “I was so touched by the stories I heard. A woman had to choose to pay for an expungement or buy diapers for her baby. It’s touching to see the need.”

Besides hosting the summit, “We help them get their GEDs, write their resumes and help them prepare for interviews,” Pastor Bright continued, “We get them clothes for the interview and right now, we’re seeking donations from Men’s Wearhouse. We give them bus passes and food cards because many are supporting families. Of our current 30 clients, fifteen have found full-time jobs.”

Aside from the practical help, there is a spiritual aspect to LWCC’s outreach. “We give new believers foundation classes for 11 weeks. We want them to leave the old man and become the new man. But first they have to confess to who they are now.” Participants are invited but not compelled to attend LWCC and perhaps become baptized.

Pastor James Glaspie works under Bright as Prison Ministry Director. He oversees LWCC’s intake office for ex-offenders at 6266 W. North Avenue. He also ministers to inmates at Illinois prisons, juvenile centers and Cook County Jail and leads inmates in foundation classes. “Guards have seen changes in the men from the first time they watch the DVD,” he said.

Glaspie and his team also help them adjust to society after they are released. “We are setting the captives free,” he said. “We’re the church. If we don’t do this, we’re not obeying the Great Commission. We have to feed them spiritually and physically. Pastor Winston told us to go into the prisons. Many of them have been rejected by their own families. They don’t have anyone to talk to, so we have a Pen Pal program and volunteers write to them.”

Glaspie knows what it’s like to get out. “Thirty years ago, I was in prison in California. One day, I had a massive growing moment. I haven’t looked back but I’m here to give back. I know who they are. I’ve been homeless and on drugs. They feel condemned and ashamed. They feel unworthy. They need to forgive themselves first.” 

His ministry is geared toward healing clients from the inside out. “Words cannot describe what I see here,” the Forest Park resident said, After “equipping” these men through GED and literacy programs, attending to their physical needs, they’ve been partnering with Workforce, 1800 South Harlem, to find them jobs. 

Dr. Eddie Kornegay is another LWCC pastor who lives in the village. “I have fallen in love with Forest Park. It’s a great community.” Kornegay is the dean of Continuing Education and Professional Development at LWCC’s Joseph Business School (JBS). He will be manning an information booth for JBS at the summit because education is the key to ex-offenders becoming productive members of society.

Speaking of Saturday’s summit, Dr. “K” noted that a very high percentage of Cook County residents have some sort of criminal conviction. He sees the event at LWCC as another important component of their comprehensive program to help inmates and ex-offenders who want to rebuild their lives.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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