Illinois voters support sealing for nonviolent offenses

Illinois voters support sealing for nonviolent offenses

A majority of Illinois voters surveyed in a recent poll back record sealing for nonviolent offenders. Here’s how policymakers should make this happen.

Employment after release from prison makes an offender’s return to crime less likely ­­­– reducing taxpayer spending on incarceration and the costs of repeated crimes for victims and communities. But between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed a year after release from prison. Unable to find legal work, many return to illegal means to support themselves – which is one reason nearly 50 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of release.

But what if after successfully completing their sentences and paying their debt to society, nonviolent ex-offenders could apply to a judge to limit the viewing of their convictions?

A majority of the 500 registered Illinois voters surveyed in an Illinois Policy Institute-commissioned poll said they support limiting access to ex-offenders’ records.

As detailed in a recent report, the pollsters asked:

“Would you favor or oppose a law that would allow nonviolent offenders who’ve completed their prison sentence to ask a judge to seal their records? This would allow only law enforcement and employers in sensitive industries, such as schools or banks, to view the record, but only if the judge feels the offender has rehabilitated.”

Overall, 70 percent of Illinois voters said they would support this. This includes majorities across the political spectrum: 75 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Independents were supportive of allowing nonviolent offenders to have their records sealed after successfully completing their sentences.

Sealing is one method of criminal justice reform addressing the cycle of incarceration and crime that costs taxpayers millions annually. It is a process by which a former offender can apply to have his or her record closed to most viewers, except for law enforcement agencies and employers in sensitive fields such as schools and financial institutions.

Sealing can remove the stigma of a criminal record when an ex-offender applies for a job, which is one of the most significant barriers to employment for ex-offenders.

Strong evidence shows employment both reduces crime and saves taxpayers money. Participants in a Safer Foundation program who held jobs for at least 30 days had a recidivism rate – or the rate at which they returned to crime after release from prison – of just 16 percent, compared to the state average of nearly 50 percent.

This is significant because over a five-year period, recidivism will cost the state of Illinois over $16.7 billion in taxes for prison, courts, police and public safety spending, in victimization costs, and in lost economic activity, according to a Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, or SPAC, report.

According to the same SPAC study, if recidivism reduced just 1 percent, Illinois would save $37.4 million in prison, court and policing costs over nine years. If it fell by 5 percent, these savings would jump to nearly $187 million over nine years. A 10 percent reduction would lead to $373.6 million in taxpayer savings over that same timeframe.

For an ex-offender to have his or her record sealed, he or she must go through an adversarial process in the courts. After the ex-offender files a petition with a judge, law enforcement officials are notified and given the chance to oppose sealing the record if they believe the ex-offender poses a public safety risk. But if successful, the ex-offender would be able to compete for employment on a more equal footing with other applicants.

Nonviolent offenders limiting viewings of their criminal records to law enforcement might worry some. But safeguards are in place to address these concerns. For example, financial firms would need to know if prospective employees have committed any offenses related to fraud or embezzlement – and the law already provides for banking firms to see this information, even if a record is sealed. Schools are another field of employment in which knowing someone’s background may be critical – and schools also have access to all criminal records, even if they are sealed. Additionally, any kind of record not specifically addressed by statute could still be accessed through a court order if necessary.

But in general, the punishment for a conviction should be the prison sentence, parole or probation served by an offender. For most nonviolent offenses, an ex-offender should have the option to petition a judge for record sealing after serving his or her sentence. If a judge, with the agreement of law enforcement officials, determines an offender has reformed, that ex-offender should have the chance to apply for work on the same grounds as anyone else – without the burden of a criminal record holding him or her back.

Three principles should guide the expansion of sealing eligibility in Illinois:

  • First, lawmakers should expand eligibility to apply for record sealing for most nonviolent offenses of any felony class.
  • Second, lawmakers should eliminate the time an ex-offender must wait to be eligible to apply for sealing. Once a prison sentence or parole has been successfully completed, a former offender should have the right to petition a court to have his or her record sealed. Currently, ex-offenders convicted of the few offenses that currently even permit sealing in Illinois must wait as long as three to four years for the chance to petition a judge to have their records sealed.
  • Third, the existing law should be revised to presume that anyone with a nonviolent offense will be allowed to petition for record sealing unless the General Assembly chooses to specifically exclude that offense. The Criminal Identification Act in its current form provides only specific, listed offenses eligible for sealing.

Employment and work are critical components of reducing crime and the fiscal and social costs that accompany it. To reduce the number of people who commit crimes after incarceration, Illinois needs policies to increase employability. Sealing expansion can help.

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