This is the easiest of the hard part. That is what I told an audience of hundreds of men and women who attended an event in Chicago last weekend to access legal help in getting their criminal and/or court records sealed and expunged.
The event, known as the Second Chance Adult and Juvenile Expungement Summit and Job Information Seminar, featured attorneys who provided free legal advice and assistance with expunging and sealing criminal records, and representatives from companies and organizations who offered information about employment opportunities. There was also a panel of advocates and community leaders who discussed the difficulties that many men and women who have interacted with the criminal justice system will face when reentering society, and informed the attendees about organizations and social service agencies that can be of help during the readjustment period.
Although the event occurs annually, this year was particularly important because Illinois recently enacted statutes that make more people eligible for record sealing, and improve the expungement process.
This is welcome news, but many of juveniles, men and women will still face immense challenges trying to rebuild their lives. Even without a searchable criminal record, finding gainful employment can be difficult. Locating affordable housing can also be hard. These are just two examples.
As a society, it is our shared responsibility to facilitate the reentry process for those leaving the criminal justice system. By making the process onerous, we not only fail the individuals who are trying to turn around their lives, we harm ourselves and our communities, as recidivism is more likely to occur. To reduce recidivism, we need public policies that fund educational and vocational programs, jobs that pay a living wage, access to affordable housing, and more.
This is not just a moral issue, but a matter of fiscal responsibility. There are roughly 30,000 people leaving Illinois prisons each year and almost half will return within three years. It costs $21,000 to house an inmate for a year, and the state spends about $1.4 billion on its corrections system.
Illinois and over half of the states in the nation have passed laws expanding the number of crimes that are eligible for expungement. This is great progress, but we need a continued commitment to tearing down the barriers faced by those who are earnestly trying to be productive and contributing members of society. It is in all of our interest.