New Illinois law ends $120 fee to clear false criminal records in Cook County

New Illinois law ends $120 fee to clear false criminal records in Cook County

A bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker will renew a pilot program in Cook County that waives fees for the expungement or sealing of criminal records for those who have been wrongfully accused of a crime.

Cook County residents wrongfully convicted or accused of a crime will no longer have to pay just to remove the blot on their name.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 482 into law Aug. 9, which renews a pilot program in Cook County that waives the $120 fee required to expunge or seal criminal records for those who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. The bill earned strong bipartisan support in the Statehouse, sailing unanimously through both the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives.

The new law, carried through the General Assembly by state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Arthur Turner, D-Chicago, applies to those who have either been acquitted, released from incarceration without charges or had their charges dismissed, reversed, or vacated.

The fee waiver program is effective immediately and extends through Dec. 31, 2020. The pilot originally ran in Cook County from January 2017 to Jan. 1, 2019.

Nearly 20% of arrestees in Cook County jail ultimately have their charges dropped, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office. And Cook County led the nation in exonerations of wrongfully incarcerated residents in 2013 and 2014 reports by the National Registry of Exonerations, or NRE.

NRE’s database shows more than 200 inmates have been exonerated in Cook County since 2011. The most commonly cited factors contributing to the wrongful incarceration of those individuals are “perjury or false accusation” and “official misconduct.” In NRE’s 2014 report, Cook County topped the nation in false confessions.

In 2019 alone, nearly 20 people have so far been exonerated in Cook County. James Gibson, who was convicted in 1991, served the longest sentence among those exonerated this year. Gibson was sentenced to life without parole on two counts of first-degree murder.

A criminal record can haunt someone long after they’ve paid their debt to society – and often for life. But for a person carrying that burden due to a wrongful arrest or conviction, paying a fee to restore his or her name is another unjust penalty. Correcting an error of the criminal justice system should not require a fee paid by the victim of that error.

Whether due to mistakes or misconduct, wrongful arrests are not limited to one county, and they will not disappear when the waiver program is set to expire in 2021. Illinois leaders should make these reforms permanent, and expand them beyond just Cook County.

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