Record sealing, expungement have the power to reduce crime, benefit Illinois’ economy

Orphe Divounguy

Chief Economist

Orphe Divounguy

Joe Tabor

Joe Tabor is an associate with the Liberty Justice Center

Joe Tabor
November 26, 2017

Record sealing, expungement have the power to reduce crime, benefit Illinois’ economy

In 2017 the Illinois General Assembly passed two bills that can improve employment outcomes for ex-offenders, potentially reducing crime and saving millions of dollars.

Illinois lawmakers passed and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law two criminal justice reform bills in 2017 that mean more opportunities for ex-offenders, and lower costs for Illinois taxpayers.

House Bill 2373 allows certain ex-offenders with felony convictions to apply to have their criminal records sealed from public view. An eligible ex-offender can file an application with the court that convicted him or her of the offense, and must notify the state police and the prosecutor and local police involved in the arrest and prosecution of the crime for which sealing is sought. If no one objects and the court enters an order granting the request for sealing, the ex-offender’s record is generally not accessible to the public, unless someone has a court order allowing that person to view the record.

House Bill 3817 automatically expunges arrest records for juveniles that do not result in delinquency, and other records after a certain amount of time has passed. The law excludes sexual offenses, most violent crimes and other serious crimes such as residential burglary. Juvenile records not expunged will be sealed from view by the general public.

It is no secret that it is difficult for ex-offenders to find jobs. An Urban Institute survey of 740 males exiting prisons in Illinois, Ohio and Texas found that only 45 percent were employed eight months after release. A more extensive study of 46,000 Ohio prisoners found an unemployment rate of 42.5 percent one year after release.

High unemployment rates among ex-offenders not only cost money, but also threaten public safety.

Ex-offenders who find work are significantly less likely to commit another crime, with a 19 percent recidivism rate for those who find employment, versus a 32 percent rate for those who do not, according to a report from Arizona State University. Expanding expungement and record sealing will make it easier for former offenders, including juveniles, to find work and less likely that they will reoffend – a win-win proposition for Illinois.

Not only that, but the likelihood of criminal offense declines with age, marriage and having children, meaning that if Illinois can prevent early recidivism and give ex-offenders employment opportunities, they are more likely to become productive members of society as time goes on.

More concretely, reducing unemployment among ex-offenders, and therefore recidivism, could save Illinois hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to taxpayers and in economic damage to victims and the public at large.

Over 28,000 prisoners were released in Illinois in 2016, according to Illinois Department of Corrections data. Nearly half of those released from prison each year recidivate within three years of release, and 19 percent will recidivate within one year of release, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, or ISPAC. If these Illinois ex-offenders experience a similar unemployment rate as Ohio ex-offenders, 6,900 of the 28,000 released Illinois ex-offenders would return to prison, assuming the national average recidivism rates of unemployed and employed ex-offenders.

According to ISPAC, each of those instances of recidivism would inflict $118,746 in costs on Illinois taxpayers, crime victims and the broader economy.

However, if giving ex-offenders a way to seal their records bridges the disparity in employment between ex-offenders and the state population as a whole, the number of re-offenders could be significantly reduced. For example, if ex-offenders were as likely as everyone else in Illinois to be employed – 5.9 percent of Illinoisans were unemployed in 2016 – then nearly 1,300 fewer ex-offenders would find themselves making another serious mistake, potentially saving taxpayers and victims up to $160 million for those released in 2016 alone.

These laws could be more effective, however. The sealing statute, for example, requires an eligible ex-offender to wait three years after his or her sentence is completed before petitioning the court to have his or her records sealed. Although the expansion of eligibility for sealing is a good thing, the long waiting period could make it harder to overcome joblessness in the critical period after release from prison.

Even so, HB 2373 and HB 3817 are two steps in the right direction. These bills will give more ex-offenders the opportunity to become productive members of society, and will make Illinois safer and more prosperous as well.

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