A new opportunity: Checking the ‘no’ box on criminal history

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — and then run?

— Langston Hughes

With the post-9/11 trend toward increasing criminal background checks set against the law-and-order stress of mass incarceration, we are at risk of denying any hope of a second chance at a productive life for future generations of incarcerated people — and even those merely charged with a crime. The impact could be felt at multiple levels. Certainly, by the individuals who are denied opportunity. Arguably, by the employers who lose out on potential talent. Eventually, by all the rest of us, who are bound to bear the economic and societal costs of recidivism.

These were the underlying themes of two events last week — the 10th Annual Expungement Summit, organized by Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, and the signing of the “Clean Slate” juvenile record expungement law by Governor Pat Quinn. Both of these events illustrate an increasing commitment to reentry in Illinois by the public sector — one that can point the way for private sector employers.

“The good news for me is that we’ve raised awareness,” Brown told me. “We’re helping people look at ex-offenders in a different way.” Indeed. The need for that fresh look is acute in what Brown calls “the broken criminal justice system in this country.” The National Employment Law Project estimates there are 70 million Americans — one out of every four adults — with a criminal record.

Roughly 20,000 people return to Chicago each year after being released from prison. Often, they face an automatic rejection from potential employers once they check the box indicating they have a criminal history. Case closed. Door shut.

That has been the experience of 31-year-old Anthony Johnson, who sought relief Saturday at the Expungement Summit, held at the Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park. Sanctuary. He had arrived at 6:20 that morning. Registration did not begin until 8:30. Eager, motivated, like the others who would show up that day. Steady droves, ready to talk to one of the 100 volunteer attorneys, set the record straight, get a record expunged.

In Johnson’s case, the story starts at a wedding reception in 2005. Things got out of hand. It happens. A dispute with a police officer. A charge of aggravated assault. A charge that was dismissed, but still causes Johnson to be denied jobs at places like Best Buy and Target and H.H. Gregg.

“People see aggravated assault and they think the worst,” he said. “I wasn’t even convicted. People should give you a chance.”

By 1 p.m., an estimated 2,000 people already had registered, bringing to the suburban mega-church their hopes for that very chance. They were in for a long day, but seemed in accord with the inscription on one man’s t-shirt: “Praying for Patience”.

Throughout the day, rap sheets were reviewed, counsel was given and other services were provided, including resume counseling, blood pressure monitoring, public aid advice, voter registration, government phone applications, even special hearings on fee waivers with one of 12 judges sitting on what was declared as an official court day. A holistic healing process. Rebuilding lives from ground level.

The focus was opportunity. A fresh start.

Expungement eliminates an entire record and is only an option when charges have been dismissed. Sealing it keeps the record from public view, but preserves it for review by authorities and is only available for certain non-violent felony convictions. While there are requirements, fees and waiting periods for each, the outcome is basically the same if granted: potential employers cannot see the record. Applicants can check the box “no.”

According to the County Clerk’s office, last year, some 8,481 expungement petitions were filed. Of those, 4,439 were granted. At that rate, only half of the problems with ex-offender reentry can be solved by wiping the slate clean.

And the measure signed by Governor Quinn on Saturday will only provide relief for some juvenile offenders. The law, sponsored by State Senator Kwame Raoul and State Representative Art Turner, takes effect on January 1, 2015 and clears juvenile arrest records on minor offenses automatically at age 18. Poof. A good start. But the law is limited to arrest records and does not extend to convictions.

The lingering burden of a criminal record can seem especially unfair for adults who have gotten caught up in the power-play dynamics of the plea bargain, a process that can make losers out of innocent people who think they’ve cut their losses.

One 35 year-old woman at the summit took that gamble. A single mother, who doesn’t want to be identified, pled on a charge of unauthorized use of a credit card, choosing two years of probation over the risk of five years in prison—five years away from her three children. A tough choice for a person who says she was duped. She was given permission to use the credit card. The person who gave the permission had stolen it. The whole matter still shows up on her record. “If you don’t plead, you stand a chance of somebody not believing you,” she said. “Then you go to jail.” Now, in the job market, she says, “You’re guilty until proven innocent.” With no chance to prove anything, really, once the background search kicks in.

This is why, in addition to wiping out records that mislead, advocates urge new progressive private employment policies. Cities, like Urbana and Champaign have included ex-offender status as a protected class in non-discrimination ordinances.

The City of Chicago joined the “Ban the Box” movement, adopting new city hiring practices in 2006. Now a similar state bill is awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature to limit the impact of past convictions on private sector employment decisions. The question of past criminal record wouldn’t be broached until an applicant is deemed qualified, either during the interview process or when an offer is made. Then there is a chance to talk about it, consider whether the past conviction is even relevant.

It is a balanced approach that weighs the nature of the crime, the passage of time, evidence of rehabilitation and the nature of the job under consideration. “I can understand if it’s a conviction for theft and you’re applying for a job in retail,” Johnson said.

It has been shown that ex-offenders are three times more likely to return to prison when they can’t find work. So it’s imperative that we consider human potential in a more fair and restorative way.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Comments are closed.