The US Justice System has always hung its hat on the correctional services that it provides to individuals who are indicted. However, one area that has never received the proper attention is what exactly happens to felons that have already been processed and paid their debt to society.
Even after facing discipline, many ex-offenders are still barred from a number of opportunities available to most citizens in their communities. The United States has always been one of the most punitive nations when it comes to denying voting rights to civilians and felons have always been handicapped significantly by these policies. There are restrictions placed on employment opportunities and where felons are permitted to live. An estimated 73.9 million Americans have a police record. (Clark 2017) Almost 30% of the adult population is at an economic disadvantage, making the issue of recidivism becomes more pertinent.
With this knowledge, many ex-offenders work to have their records expunged or sealed over time. For those who may not be familiar, expungement is when an individual petitions the court to have a record removed. That means the State Police, the State Attorney and whatever precinct processed them has to remove the record entirely. However, if a record is sealed, it is still visible but only to law enforcement agencies. For example, agencies that perform basic background checks cannot see records that have been sealed. This makes a large difference when someone is looking for advancement opportunities (employment, housing, etc.). Joy Burgess, legal secretary for Land of Lincoln Legal Aid and organizer of an expungement/sealing summit here in Springfield provided me with a great deal of powerful information about how millions are punished by their prior indictments year after year.
For starters, millions of ex-offenders are denied job opportunities annually, restricting them from providing for their families. When they are denied the chance to do so, ex-offenders are often tempted to engage in the same illegal activities that got them convicted to begin with (recidivism). In addition, someone's living arrangements can be affected by prior indictments. Many public housing organizations perform background checks on their applicants and, if their police record raises concerns, then their application will mostly be denied. Many public housing organizations have a long waitlist of applicants and, when an applicant has convictions on their record; their chances of being accepted are slim to none. Private landlords have been known to discriminate against ex-offenders as well, citing them as in on necessary risk. "Families have been broken up…" due to these policies Burgess said. Joy went on to provide examples about how children have been able to live in public housing but one or more of the guardians are not allowed to live there due to prior arrest. Having an expunged/sealed police record can be the difference between a happy home and a broken home.
However, the buck does not stop here as there has been numerous occasions where retirees are denied access to quality retirement homes because of convictions/supervisions they have on their record. " We even have people 60, 70 years old, worked all their lives… get ready to retire, needed to go into retirement home and they can't go into the retirement home because of something they may have done 40 or 50 years earlier,” Joy added. Mental health centers also fall under this umbrella as well. An individual who has a mental disorder can be denied housing based on prior incidents.
Society’s systematic handicapping of ex-offenders has played a large part in Sangamon County decision to introduce the expungement summit. This is Legal aid’s second year being involved in the summit and before that, Joy worked similar expungement events through this circuit clerk's office. It is incredible to see the community take the time to try and uplift ex-offenders instead of following history's tradition of consistently marginalizing this population.
"A lot of people figure this system is out of get them..." Joy says but she believes this summit does a great job of restoring people's faith in the legal system. "There are ways to handle it and this one way." Last year the summit helped roughly 200 people. Land of Lincoln Legal Aid has also held similar events in different counties across the state.
The primary motive behind this summit is to provide the guidance that many ex-offenders need. "It's just a second chance for people," Joy noted. Burgess noted her primary motivation for coordinating the summit is to help ensure “ex-offenders don't become re-offenders".
All fees are waived prior to pre-registration, as the only expense to participants would be a $30 payment to have themselves fingerprinted. Fingerprints are needed to obtain background records. For those who would be interested in participating in Sangamon County's expungement/record sealing summit should contact Joy Burgess at 217-529-8400 to pre-register. You may also call Joy or Land of Lincoln Legal aid to speak with one of their licensed attorneys about any other legal questions you may have. The summit will be held Saturday October 19 from 10 a.m. through 2 p.m. at Memorial Center for Learning & Innovation (228 West Miller Street, Springfield). For those who have already paid their debt to society, it may be time that you stop carrying the weight of your past mistakes.
P.S. Joy recommends being fingerprinted and having your record pulled whether or not you have a police record. "There is a lot of identity theft," Joy said. Sometimes this leads to someone being locked up during a routine traffic stop for a crime they never committed