By Edith Brady-Lunny
SPRINGFIELD — A new Illinois law gives a break to ex-offenders who finish high school and other courses while incarcerated by allowing them to apply to have their criminal records sealed without waiting years to begin the process.
The law, effective in January, lets eligible offenders request that their records be sealed without a mandatory wait after their sentence, including parole, is completed. The law rewards those who complete GED, college degrees, vocational training and career certificates while in jail or prison.
The program is an incentive that puts recently released inmates on a faster track to regain their footing in the community and avoid a return to prison, said Madeline Neighly, senior policy adviser on corrections and re-entry with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
“We know that jobs and housing are very important to helping reduce recidivism,” said Neighly, who is leading development of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a resource for advocates with no legal expertise, policymakers, lawyers and legislators.
The project, scheduled for an August debut, will be a state-by-state guide to the complex rules governing the sealing and expungement of criminal records.
Advocates and decision makers will be able to compare how their state stacks up against others on re-entry issues and the impact their policies have on a person’s ability to start over, said Neighly.
“We’re seeing an increase in understanding that, intentional or not, the barriers that have been put in place are going against the goals of reducing prison populations,” said Neighly.
The number of legal restrictions on ex-offenders living in the U.S. numbers more than 48,000, including more than 1,400 in Illinois, according to the Council of State Governments.
Bloomington defense lawyer Robert Carter said the negative consequences are not limited to felony convictions. Certain misdemeanors such as shoplifting and battery also can limit a person’s job options. Before a client signs off on a plea agreement, Carter talks to them about the limitations of their decision.
“We discuss the potential consequences of any type of plea deal — not just the sentence, but its collateral consequences,” said Carter.
A felony conviction can affect a person’s right to vote, own a firearm, secure a loan, a home and a job. Illinois has six levels of felonies that can send a person to prison from one year to life. With the ever-expanding list of criminal offenses comes an equally expanding population of people with limited opportunities.
The result, said Carter, is “a society full of unproductive citizens who can no longer contribute to society in a meaningful way.”