Expungement gets a little easier in Chicago

In the United States, one in every four people has a criminal record.

Those records can be haunting. If you have something in your past that you're not proud of, it can still interrupt your life, no matter how long ago it was or how much you've changed. Even an arrest or charge that's later dismissed can continue to hold you back years later.

For those who've moved on from a criminal past, or for those who have a single charge on their record that can be explained, expungement can be a godsend. It can mean being able to get a job, apply to be a foster parent, or succeeding in anything where a background check is mandatory.

But the process isn't easy. Securing a lawyer, filing the paperwork, appearing before a judge and then waiting to see if the order is enforced. For low-income people who desperately want to move forward in life, the legal process designed to help them can be a barrier.

But a new system from Illinois Legal Aid aims to make that process a little easier. They've created an online system where people can determine if they're eligible for expungement and then create the legal documents to file.

“The criminal record is one of the most debilitating lifelong restrictions to employment a person could face,” said Tony Lowery, director of policy and advocacy for the Safer Foundation. "Most people don’t understand that arrest records have to be expunged.”

Cabrini Green Legal Aid, one of the best resources for people who want to get their criminal record sealed, says it turns away people every week from its help desk. Director Beth Johnson says these online resources will bring help to those who need it.

“These amazing new online resources will give them a place to go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Johnson said.

The Chicago Reporter has done extensive research and investigation into expungement in Illinois. Our May 2009 investigation revealed that even though many people had gone through the process of expungement properly and their records were ordered to be sealed by the judge, the Illinois State Police was defying those orders and refusing to seal records. As a result, many people who thought their records were sealed--6,948 in Cook County--would later find out they had not been. As a result of the investigation, the program was audited by the Illinois Attorney General and the state police were ordered to enforce the expungement orders.

The Center for American Progress recently reported the growing gap between the legal services low-income people need and the supply of lawyers to help them. Sixty-three million Americans qualify for legal help, but 71 percent of them don't get their needs met by the system. At least 90 percent of litigants in a high volume city courts don't have access to a lawyer. For every one legal aid attorney, there's 6,415 low-income people who need legal assistance.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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