The gift of a second chance

The gift of a second chance

Illinois has started to embrace second chances for people who have been through the criminal justice system.

For many, the holiday season would be incomplete without watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Among the movie’s most celebrated themes are those of generosity and second chances.

In an important – albeit less poetic – way, Illinois in 2017 has embraced second chances for people who have been through the criminal justice system.

Two bills signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August make it easier for ex-offenders to leave their pasts behind, successfully re-enter their communities and provide for themselves and their families. And a new law regarding the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture will prevent more Illinoisans from being unfairly deprived of their property.

One of the new laws expands record sealing eligibility, allowing ex-offenders with felony convictions to petition a court to have their criminal records sealed from view by the general public, including by most private employers. The new law excludes most sexual offenses from sealing, along with certain violent offenses such as domestic battery.

Generally, an eligible former offender must wait three years to apply to have his or her record sealed. The ex-offender must then 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.

Another bill creates protections for juveniles by expanding expungement, a process by which a person’s criminal record is wiped clean, not merely sealed from view. The new law provides for automatic expungement of juvenile arrest records that do not result in delinquency. The law further mandates expungement of records of delinquency two years after the juvenile’s case is closed, so long as that juvenile has no other criminal cases pending against him or her and no subsequent delinquency proceedings. Certain offenses are excluded from expungement eligibility, such as many sex offenses and violent crimes and other serious crimes such as residential burglary. Juvenile records not expunged are sealed from view by the general public.

These new laws can help dismantle barriers that prevent ex-offenders, including juveniles, from obtaining employment and successfully re-entering their communities.

A criminal record will often disqualify an ex-offender from a job, even if he or she is otherwise well-qualified. The new sealing law and the juvenile record expungement law could help many ex-offenders apply for jobs without fear that their years-old criminal records will prevent them from being considered.

When former offenders are able to find work to support themselves and their families, they are less likely to return to crime. While almost half of ex-offenders in Illinois end up back in prison within three years of release, when an exoffender can secure a job, the likelihood of recidivism can drop to as low as 16 percent, according to a study by the Safer Foundation.

In addition to the terrible human toll crime takes on its victims and on the offender’s ability to lead a productive life in his or her community, a report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council has found the financial costs associated with each instance of recidivism amount to $118,746. Those costs are borne by victims and taxpayers and manifest in foregone economic activity. At Illinois’ current rate of recidivism, over five years, recidivism will cost taxpayers more than $16.7 billion.

While the new laws mark an improvement in helping former offenders re-enter their communities and the job market successfully, the sealing law’s three-year waiting period could limit the recidivism-reducing benefits of the measure.

In addition to promoting second chances for former offenders, Illinois has taken a step toward fairer treatment of property owners deprived of their belongings by law enforcement.

At a Sept. 19 signing ceremony alongside criminal justice reform advocates from the Illinois Policy Institute and others, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed civil asset forfeiture reform into law.

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice wherein police can seize property suspected of having been connected to a crime without obtaining a criminal conviction against the owner. The new law will reform this practice in Illinois through several provisions that enhance protections for property owners and impose new restrictions on government seeking to retain seized property.

The new law transfers the burden of proof to the government to show it is entitled to take the property,
instead of requiring the property owner to prove that he or she is entitled to keep it. The law also provides for new data collection regarding seizures of property and enhanced notice procedures for asset forfeiture proceedings, and will also protect property owners from having to pay “cost bonds” just to get their cases before a judge.

While Illinois still has much work to do to make its criminal justice system fairer, the steps taken in 2017 move the state closer to that important goal.

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