While working with ex-offenders as an attorney in North Lawndale, Melissa L. Williams was continually frustrated. Many of the individuals she saw in front of her day in and day out were looking for jobs and the economic security that came with it, but had criminal records that, once discovered, became barriers to employment.
“We realized there were so many people we couldn’t help, because they had convictions,” said Williams, executive director of the Wiley Resource Center and chairperson of the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee’s Chicago Westside Branch.
Williams will be joining The Chicago Reporter at the Barber Shop Show Friday at noon to discuss HB 5723 on Vocalo. Tune it to 89.5 FM and leave us comments or queries under this article, on our Facebook page or tweet us @chicagoreporter.
“We wanted to look and kind of examine which offenses are out there and the most common barriers to people getting employment and housing,” Williams told the Reporter. “We found that it was the Class 2 felony drug offense. So we said, let’s try to see if we can seal this one as well so these folks can get a chance to get back to work.”
And thus began the campaign for HB5723,, the bill that seeks to expand the types of convictions that can be sealed to ensure they don't show up on routine background checks and that ex-offenders are not discriminated against when trying to get housing, an education or a job.
Without access to these basic necessities, advocates of the bill say, ex-offenders are being pushed "to the margins of society to become part of a permanent underclass with little chance of flourishing and providing opportunities to their children beyond the pale of poverty,” according to a supporting organization.
The plight of ex-offenders has been long-standing issue, but one that has seen a spike in interest since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was published.
In the book, she argues that while discrimination in housing, education, voting, etc., explicitly based on race is no longer permissible, such disenfranchisement is completely acceptable if the target of such discrimination is a 'criminal.'
"Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind," she writes, in an excerpt.
The proposed bill, sponsored by IL State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, would add to the current law in Illinois which allows the sealing of records for nonviolent misdemeanors and three felony types: prostitution, possession of cannabis and possession of a class 4 controlled substance--the lowest class. A person must have had no contact with the criminal justice system for four years after the end of their last sentence to be eligible to petition the court.
All other offenses require filing for executive clemency, or a pardon, to the governor, a process that is common, Williams says, but "the reality is it takes years for an answer on a request.”
HB 5723 would add additional Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4 felonies to the list as long as they don't fall under several broad categories, which include DUI, sex crimes, violent crime, reckless driving, or an offense requiring registration as a sex offender, among others.
Much like the current law, the request to seal records will go through a petition to the Circuit Court. Then law enforcement agencies and the individual’s former prosecutor will be given the chance to object to the sealing of the record. If they do, the request goes before a judge.
The bill has gone through committee and should be called in the House in the next 60 days, says Williams.
Though many community groups are in favor of the bill, including the Cabrini Green Law Project and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, it has come up against some vocal opponents.
All of the Republicans in the state House stood against the bill, said Williams, and there have also been issues raised from the powerful banking lobby in Springfield.
While Williams says that some people just don’t want others to have their records cleared – “it’s insanity,” she says – the groups in favor of the bill also hope to work in good faith to clear up concerns.
Banks are required by federal law to be able to see full criminal records, says Williams, and so the legislation has been amended to add banks to the list of places that can see sealed records, including health centers, prosecutors and child care services.
The groups also hope to argue the bill will lead to savings for the state budget, already $8 billion in the red, because it would cut down on recidivism by giving ex-offenders a better shot at reintegrating into society through stable housing and jobs.
The HB 5723 fact sheet estimates the cost to house an inmate in a state correctional facility can be upwards of $60,000 a year, an amount which Williams says is equal to “a salary.”
Williams hopes that the work she has been doing with other groups will pay off.
“A lot of folks don’t have hope. It’s kind of surreal to them, that we’re working to pass this law, that they may be able to get their records sealed so they can go back to work, ” said Williams.
“One of the things that Congressman [Danny] Davis said is so true. Unless we have more reform when it comes to the criminal justice system,” said Williams, “it looks like we’re enslaving people, when you leave an ‘x’ on someone’s back forever after they’ve paid their debt to society.”
© Community Renewal Society 2012
Photo credit: adactio
Tags: cannabis, Circuit Court, class 2 felony drug offense, clemency, disenfranchisement, economic security, HB 5723, La Shawn K. Ford, NAACP, North Lawndale, pardon, posession of a controlled substance, sealed, sealed records, The New Jim Crow, underclass, unemployment, Wiley Resource Center