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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018 12:08 am

Off the record

Expungement summit gives hope to people with a past

Joy Burgess, right, chief organizer of the expungement summit, works at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, but also did it as a labor of love. “Oh my God it feels good to be able to help people,” she said. Denise Church, left, a retired lawyer, works with the Sangamon County Bar Association and helped to recruit the 15-20 lawyers who volunteered Saturday.
PHOTO BY FLETCHER FARRAR

 

A conviction and prison time for marijuana possession more than 10 years ago prevents him from becoming a registered nurse, said one of the 204  who showed up for the “Expungement and Record Sealing Summit” held Nov. 17 at Matheny-Withrow School. “In my youth I was reckless and misguided,” he says. He’s turned his life around and now has a responsible job as a cook, but can’t go further. “Having a criminal background closes a lot of doors,” he said.

He knows he’s not a candidate to have his criminal record erased, or “expunged.” According to Illinois law, expungement is a possibility only for those who were never convicted of anything, but still have a record because they were arrested, their case was dismissed, or they were given “supervision.”

“But sealing would help,” he said, and he may be a good candidate. A 2017 law greatly expanded the types of criminal convictions that can be sealed from public view, with access allowed only by court order. Now nearly all nonviolent felony convictions are eligible to be considered for “sealing.” Once paperwork is completed, it usually takes about four months to get the record expunged or sealed, authorities said.

The man with the marijuana conviction also noted that the “summit” is saving him a lot of money and hassle. By order of a judge the $120 filing fee for applying for sealing or expungement was waived for those who went through the process Saturday. A lawyer’s services could add to the costs for someone filing on their own, but here there were 15-20 volunteer lawyers on hand, one assigned to each case to help for free. And there were experts on hand to answer questions, including Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright, Circuit Clerk Paul Palozzolo, and a representative of the Prisoner Review Board. “Think of all the running around you would have to do,” the man said.

Another trying to get loose from his criminal record said he’s been a truck driver for 20 years, but hasn’t been able to move up to a larger trucking company because they do background checks. “In 1996 I was living the street life, selling drugs to take care of my family,” he said. He sold to an undercover officer and wound up with a Class X felony conviction. “With the new law, I might be able to get it sealed.”

A man who said he will be 65 in January is working on his fourth master’s degree, has authored numerous books and has taught college classes locally. He once worked for a federal housing agency but since then has been turned down for work at 10 or 12 state and federal agencies where he’s applied. “They don’t give you a reason, but I know,” he said. Years ago he was charged with battery and was given “supervision,” a record he’s now trying to get expunged.

Joy Burgess of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation was a lead organizer of the summit, with assistance and sponsorships from numerous organizations, including the Sangamon County Bar Association, Springfield Urban League and Springfield Baha’i community. Burgess said it feels good to be able to help people shed the weight of their criminal past that has kept them out of jobs and housing. “We need to remember that ex-offenders become re-offenders if the community doesn’t give them a chance to succeed,” she said in an interview following the event. She said the summit was able to help in all but about five percent of the cases brought in Saturday.

“I not only feel good myself, I feel good for them,” she said. “I told the group we’re here to help because we believe you’re worth it. They must feel like they’re worth it too.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at editor@illinoistimes.com.

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