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Mitchell: Removing stain of arrest a step toward justice reform

Saturday, April 16, 2016
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mary Mitchell

Before urban areas exploded in anger over police shootings, there was talk of reforming our criminal justice system.

Civil rights activist Michelle Alexander really kicked off that conversation with her book “The New Jim Crow,” a scholarly look at the failed drug war and the impact that mass incarceration has had on communities of color nationwide.


In Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been an outspoken advocate for reducing the numbers of juveniles held in detention and for reforming the process by which judges determine the bail required for non-violent offenders.

And Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart — who put a national spotlight on the injustice of warehousing mentally ill offenders in the Cook County Jail — now is backing a bill to remove a provision of the law blocking anyone with a previous conviction from applying for an expungement.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Art Turner, passed the House Judiciary Committee last week on a 12-3 vote.

“You know what helps keep people from turning to crime?” Dart says. “A job. True reform of our criminal justice system will never occur unless we give people a chance to remove the scarlet letter of an arrest.”

While protests and marches over police-involved shootings pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel into dumping his police superintendent and forced Anita Alvarez out of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, the actions that are needed to bring about real criminal justice reform are up to the General Assembly.

“If you have a conviction in your past and you are arrested again, you can never get that arrest expunged,” says Cara Smith, chief of policy for the sheriff’s department.

The bill now in Springfield doesn’t allow ex-offenders to erase a conviction. What it does, though, is waive the $120 fee required to apply for an expungement for those who have been released from jail, with the charges against them dropped.

That’s the first step toward reform.

Over the past two years, 19,000 people have been released from jail after the charges they faced were dropped.

Many of them are now barred from finding employment even though they weren’t convicted of any crime whatsoever.

Is it reasonable to think that without the ability to earn any kind of legitimate living, these ex-offenders are going to be able to avoid the kind of activities that landed them in jail in the first place?

“If the governor wants to reduce the prison population by 25 percent, getting people jobs, allowing people a chance to rehabilitate is part and parcel,” Smith says. “Reform is easy to talk about, much harder to put in practice.”

Though the expungement bill made it out of committee, supporters are getting pushback from the Illinois State Police and the Clerk of the Circuit Court. These agencies share revenue from expungement applications.

“We’ve got to stop funding the government on the backs of the people that enter the criminal justice system,” Smith says.

The Illinois State Police didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the clerk’s office said: “Clerk Dorothy Brown did not take a position on HB6328 because we have a bill, HB4954b that gives people immediate relief.” The bill failed to pass the House last week.

Obviously, there are people who would rather steal than work (my stolen-identity problem is proof of that), but most people who have made mistakes in the past are looking for a way forward.

Until we open up a path, we’re just making noise.


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