One basic tenet of United States law is that people are innocent until proven guilty, but that isn’t always the case for youth with arrest records. Even without a conviction or charge, a single arrest can still mark them as criminals, as employers opt for hiring youth with cleaner records.
A proposal to automatically clear arrest records for juveniles who are never charged each year passed both houses of the Illinois legislature last week. The bill, which aims to give youth a second chance, is now headed to the governor’s desk.
“Expungement of juvenile arrest records will ensure young adults are not tied to past mistakes as they move into responsible adulthood,” said Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) in a statement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.
Arrests ending without a charge aren’t out of the ordinary. Once an arrest is made, police have 48 hours to charge the suspect. When someone walks out of the police station with just an arrest, it’s because the “evidence is not there to charge” them, said Mike Sullivan, a Chicago police officer.
Last Saturday, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown hosted an expungement summit at the Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park, offering a sort of one-stop-shop for people looking to clear their record. About 3,000 were expected to attend, and hundreds of volunteers were ready to help them through the expungement process.
Expungement offers a “second chance,” Brown said. With arrests and convictions off their records, people are able to get housing, qualify for government assistance, get college loans and scholarships and join the armed forces. It also helps them get hired.
The Democrat-sponsored bill passed 74-40 in the House and 36-16 in the Senate with bipartisan support. Emanuel also backed the proposal.
“Automatically expunging these records will help make sure we’re putting young people on a path to prosperity giving them an even playing field and equal shot at accessing education, financial aid, housing, and employment,” Emanuel said in a statement.
Inside the Living Word Christian Center’s main auditorium, it looked like a Sunday morning sermon: hundreds of people, of every age, filled the movie-theater seats, rap sheets in hand, as Brown leaned over the pulpit, expounding on the particulars of expungement, rather than the Ten Commandments.
Volunteers led small groups through the bustling hallways, past vendors offering everything from health care to tattoo removal, and employers looking to hire, to rooms filled with volunteer attorneys and judges.
Timothy Jackson, 29, from Chicago’s West Side, decided to go to the summit after failing to find employment due to his record.
Jackson said he’d been looking for employment for 10 years, but “they instantly judge me as being a criminal to society,” Jackson said. “It’s been rough.”
The new proposal would be the first of its kind in the country: several states allow for expungement, but none do so automatically.
Automatic expungement would apply to those who have been arrested but not charged with a crime, have not had an additional arrest or charge within six months of the original arrest, and have turned 18 in the last year. Charges for a sexual crime or serious felony would not be expunged, nor would charges resulting in a conviction.
Most juveniles are already eligible for expungement following their 18th or 21st birthdays under Illinois law, which Brown said demonstrates some of the best juvenile justice policies in the country. But many are not aware that they qualify.
Each year about 15,000 juvenile arrests are eligible for expungement, but last year only 661 people submitted applications, Brown said. Out of those who applied, 606 were expunged.
The summit’s volunteer attorneys helped people through the complicated paperwork, making sure they qualified and that all their paperwork and fees were in order. Judges were present as well, allowing those who qualified to set a hearing date. By going through the process with an attorney, participants would be more likely to be granted expungement in their hearing, said Shavonne Tompkins, public affairs manager for the Cook County Circuit Court.
“You have job opportunities for people, then that cuts down on recidivism, it cuts down to me, on the violence on the streets of Chicago. People don’t have to commit crimes if they have a job. Basically crime is an economic situation most of the time,” Brown said.
For juveniles, the expungement process can prove difficult: first, they must obtain their arrest history and, possibly, charging and disposition information from the Circuit Clerk, for a fee. Two forms of ID are required and a parent or legal guardian must be present if they are under the age of 18. Next, they have to fill out court petition, notice and order forms, which are filed with the Circuit Court Clerk, also for a fee. For some cases, juveniles will then receive a hearing date. If their record is ultimately expunged, they will need to pay an additional fee for the actual expungement. However, most fees can be waived if they are unable to pay by filing for a waiver with the court.
If the automatic expungement proposal is signed into law, many juveniles won’t have to worry about paperwork and fees. Come Jan.1, their records would be wiped clean.