Illinoisans sentenced to life as ex-cons, even after offenses are no longer crimes

Illinoisans sentenced to life as ex-cons, even after offenses are no longer crimes

Illinois lawmakers’ approach to some minor criminal offenses has evolved, but not their treatment of the related criminal records that can haunt someone for life. A pair of bills could change that.

Criminal records can prevent Illinoisans from finding employment, even if their offenses have been decriminalized since they paid their debt to society. Two bills in the Illinois General Assembly would help overcome that barrier.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, and state Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, have introduced House Bill 2621 and Senate Bill 1640, respectively, which would let individuals have their records expunged if the crime for which they served their sentence is no longer a crime.

The measures would amend the Illinois Criminal Identification Act, creating a process to let ex-offenders petition the circuit court of their arrest to remove offenses that were decriminalized, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana. The bill would not allow expungement for serious crimes, such as violent or sexual offenses.

A criminal record can be a significant barrier to obtaining housing, education and employment.

Nearly half of employers nationwide require applicants to disclose their criminal histories, which can jeopardize employment prospects even for those who’ve faced minor charges.

For example, a 30-year-old marijuana possession charge continues to haunt Harry Jackson, a downstate truck driver. Despite Illinois’ 2016 decriminalization law and serving just two years of probation at the time, Jackson has had to check a box on every job or volunteer application, reminding the family man in his mid-50s of a mistake he made while in his 20s.

While some argue such requirements boost public safety, they more often have the opposite effect. Preventing nonviolent ex-offenders from re-entering the workforce only makes it more likely he or she will re-offend, inadvertently exposing the public to greater risk.

Each incident of recidivism costs Illinois victims, taxpayers and the broader economy more than $150,000. With more than 40 percent of those released from prison convicted of another crime within three years of release, this could amount to $13 billion over five years, according to data from the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

Expanding expungement can make it easier for people with criminal records to find work and less likely they will return to prison, benefiting both Illinois communities and those trying to live an honest life. Lawmakers should seize this win-win opportunity by sending Slaughter and Fine’s bills to the governor.

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