A way out of poverty: New Illinois law allows some felons to have their records sealed

A way out of poverty: New Illinois law allows some felons to have their records sealed
Rita Allison just wants to get back to work - without her felony convictions hanging over her head. Photo by Yana Kunichoff

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.

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  • Take yer pick you either want us to be fast food workers or fleet foot wankers. the choice is yours.

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    Now if only they would have included the class 2 possession of a motor vehicle! Why did they have to amend the law? Who knows. I wish I could have my life back though! I took off in someone's car and went for a joy ride more than 10 years ago. I spent 1 year of my life in prison because of it and I'm STILL suffering tremendously! I can only imagine how many people have just given up and stayed living a life of crime because they have no other way to support their families. Or maybe they just ended their life because society doesn't accept you if you made a mistake once!! All I know is if something isn't done fast the crime rate is going to go up fast. Luckily I have a job or I might have had to go to other measures to support my kids!! The burden is absolutely horrific!

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    I agree Hunnybunny. Over 10 years ago at the age of 17 me and some friends broke into our old friends house we were mad at and took CD's of his. He obviously didn't want to press charges but his mother owned the house and thought otherwise. We were convicted of Class 2 Burglary and has haunted us all since. No excuse, but 10 years later with not even a traffic ticket I think I do deserve a second chance.

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    In reply to Matt Brasket:

    i totally agree i was also convicted of a class 2 burglary did almost 3 years in prison for it! i guess that wasn't enough? anyways it was so hard to get a job,it took many many years and i almost gave up buy a family friend saw how good i was doing and helped me get a decent job,but no its not good enough to raise or support a family or start one! i have not been in trouble or a ticket in 14 yrs! yes,i screwed up! i had substance abuse problems since before i was a teen,been clean for almost 8 years don't even smoke cigarettes i cant go to school or even get a car loan because of this! i want my life back! now! where i live the gun crime is so bad i can even register for an FO.I.D card i have the right to bear arms no matter what i've done except in certain extreme circumstances,like being caught with an unregistered gun in a gang or illegal shooting! but thats a whole other thing,please just give us all a chance this law is'nt good enough!

  • HB 3061 doesn't do enough. They sure could grant the sealing of non-violent class 2 felonies with provisions such as having to wait so many years before filing. I am not sure why they amended the bill as originally intended because it looked like it was doing fine. I hope they continue trying to pass the originally intended law, but it doesn't look like it. I will have to plan on having odd jobs well into my 40s with a college degree. Sweet!

  • BTW, they should correct these articles in saying certain felonies are seal-able when they aren't. It will prevent thousands of people excitedly calling their loved ones to bring false news. For example, the fith paragraph states, "(t)he 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", which is false. Thanks really for getting me to spend the last 4 hours researching this looking for mistakes.

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