Empowering People with Second Chances and Opportunity

January 20, 2015

1148_2569None of us would want to be forever judged only by the worst things we have ever done, particularly when those things happened long ago. Yet that is exactly what happens for many thousands of people who had what were often minor brushes with the law earlier in their lives and are now trying to move forward, a reality that disproportionately impacts people in low-income and disadvantaged communities. One of the many ways you are making a difference through your support of the Investing in Justice Campaign is empowering people in these circumstances to get the second chances they are entitled to under the law through the good work of Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA).

Record relief gives people a second chance at life, an opportunity to build a new history for themselves.

A criminal record regardless of whether it resulted in a conviction follows the individual long after an incident and creates obstacles in employment, housing, and even education.

One of CGLA’s principal areas of focus is criminal records relief, which is largely done through two help desks and a related court-based program that are supported by the Investing in Justice Campaign. At the desks, CGLA staff and volunteers review applicants’ records to determine whether they are eligible for relief, provide legal advice, assist with completing necessary court forms, or provide advice and referrals for alternative forms of relief. CGLA often provides further services or extended representation for applicants with more complex cases, and the Campaign supports that broader work as well.

People don’t even realize that their record can cause them a problem until it does, like when they’re turned away from their job or they’re at risk of losing their housing, explained CGLA Executive Director Gretchen Slusser. Record relief gives people a second chance at life, an opportunity to build a new history for themselves.

The help desks, located in the Daley Center and Markham Courthouse, served more than 4,000 individuals looking to overcome barriers and become more productive citizens in the last year. CGLA receives approximately 70 percent of its total referrals through the Desk in the Daley Center, which sees approximately 25 people a day. Additionally, in partnership with Chicago Legal Clinic, CGLA helps staff the contested expungement call at 26th and California.

Deborah, a single mother of two, is one of the many who have received this critical help through CGLA. She had been arrested more than 20 times earlier in her life as she struggled with addiction. Her last conviction was over 10 years ago, and she had been in recovery for eight years. Despite this, she could not find sustainable employment and lived on a monthly subsidy from Social Security. She found a turning point in CGLA.

The CGLA Client Support Services team assisted Deborah in applying for jobs and finding housing in a safe neighborhood. They helped prepare a letter to her potential employer providing proof of rehabilitation. After having the majority of her record sealed and a clemency petition scheduled, Deborah is now self-sufficient and employed full time in the transportation industry, bettering not only her life, but her family’s as well.

There are an estimated 3.9 million people in Illinois with a criminal record. Prior to 2003, the only relief for a conviction was a pardon from the Illinois Governor, regardless of how old or minor the conviction was. The Illinois General Assembly passed the first version of the sealing law in 2003; the list of felony offenses that are eligible to be sealed has expanded several times since, due in part to CGLA’s advocacy.

How is eligibility for records relief determined? The difference between expungement and sealing comes down to convictions: expungement is available to those who were arrested and not convicted, and it results in the destruction of the police records; sealing is for those who have convictions, and their record will still be available to law enforcement after sealing. Less than 40 percent of those who visit the Desks qualify for complete expungement or sealing, which is where other forms of relief come into play. Certificates of Good Conduct, Certificates of Relief from Disability, and health care waivers are all tools that remove statutory barriers to employment or licensure.

Slusser notes that her office also worked closely with Governor Quinn, who received much attention for his dedication to clemency work (a total of 4,928 clemency decisions), and that CGLA clients received clemency from the Governor 70 percent of the time. Because we do so much of this work, we’re using that information to help in the policy arena, to change the laws and policies that make it necessary for these forms of relief to be available, she added.

A common challenge people in this situation face is the misconception that someone with a criminal record is indeed a criminal.

A RAP sheet doesn’t represent the good in a person’s life, said CGLA Director of Legal Programs Beth Johnson.

Johnson, who has represented hundreds of clients in all areas related to criminal records, was selected as a 2014 Chicago Community Trust Emerging Leader fellow. Her fellowship focuses on growth in criminal justice advocacy and policy work. Her work with CGLA and other advocacy groups led to expansions and clarifications to criminal records laws in the Illinois General Assembly. Over the years, Johnson has realized that her work doesn’t represent someone that fits within a box. The variety, diversity, and background of the people CGLA represents show that criminal records can impact everybody from those who haven’t finished high school to those with higher education degrees.

Some of the things we deem criminal in society don’t just happen in low-income areas, it happens everywhere, but it’s the rate of prosecution that differs, said Johnson. We’re changing the narrative and stereotype people have.