In the 1980s, Rita Allison shoplifted from a suburban department store. It happened so long ago that she doesn’t remember the name of the store, or what exactly it was she stole. But Allison, 55, said she was caught – and charged with six felony counts. The Chicago Reporter met Allison at a weekend forum on a new bill that may help some people with felony charges seal their records.
Her past shoplifting charges may be fading from Allison’s memory, but they are still on her rap sheet. When Allison applies for a job, she has to check the box indicating she has been convicted of a felony. More than 48,000 people are incarcerated in Illinois state prisons on felony convictions, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. And when former Illinois prisoners are on the outside looking for a job, they’ll have to check the felony box as well.
The situation, though, may be looking brighter for some Illinois residents with felony convictions. On Aug. 2, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill, HB3061, which will allow individuals charged with retail theft, forgery or possession of cannabis, among other offenses, to apply to have their record sealed. It’s been a two-year process from when the bill was first introduced, failed to pass, and then re-introduced, said Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (IL-8th), lead sponsor of the bill.
Ford held a summit Saturday at the University of Illinois at Chicago to get out word about the bill, and offer free legal advice for people looking to seal their records. But the event also tried to address the realities of post-conviction employment and helping ex-offenders out of poverty: bringing in weatherization companies that employ people with felony records and giving advice on what to do when someone is first convicted of a crime. The summit took up two floors at the UIC Forum, with workshops being held in several meeting rooms.
The recently passed HB3061 will allow people who want their records sealed to apply directly to the court where they were charged. It also expands the offenses that can be sealed beyond legislation already on the books. Class 2 felony convictions for burglary, delivery of a drug or possessing a stolen motor vehicle are all now included. The bill offers one shot. If an individual gets another offense after his or her record is sealed, it’s unlikely a record can be opened and resealed, said Melissa Williams, executive director of the Wiley Resource Center and chairperson of the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee’s Chicago Westside Branch.
The new law is more expansive than a law already in place that allows people with Class 3 and Class 4 nonviolent felonies to apply to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and then the Cook County Court, to have their records sealed. But HB3061 is leaner than an earlier version of the bill introduced by Ford in February 2012, and seen by criminal justice advocates as the ideal version of the bill. But the offenses the recently signed legislation includes “are the offenses that have really been blocking people out of the workforce,” said Williams. Those offenses include retail theft, deceptive practices and minor drug charges. The law goes into effect January 2014, and Rita Allison can’t wait not to check the felony box on her job applications. “It means so much to me to be able to finally check no and go back to work,” she said.
Allison, a Bronzeville resident, used to work in medical billing but has been living off her deceased husband’s veteran’s benefits for the past three years. She’s also been volunteering at the Wiley Resource Center in North Lawndale, where she sees people struggling with similar issues--trying to get a foothold in the job market despite a criminal conviction.
“I can’t wait to be supporting myself again,” Allison said.
Tags: bill, Chicago Muckrakers, Chicago Reporter, criminal justice, drug, employment, felony, Gov. Pat Quinn, HB3061, incarcerated, job, LaShawn K Ford, Melissa Williams, NAACP, poverty, retail theft, Rita Allison, sealing, state prisons, stole, theft, UIC, Wiley Resource Center, Yana Kunichoff