Both Illinois and the nation have a strong tradition of awarding people second chances. Sometimes it takes more than the stroke of a pen to accomplish meaningful and enduring reforms. Illinois is now poised to fine tune its law with several bills that have been introduced in the legislature to allow more chances for people who want to move on from past transgressions and positively contribute to society.

It doesn’t require special research to understand that criminal records negatively impact nearly every critical aspect of modern life in America. The 70 million individuals with criminal records face permanent barriers to employment, housing, education, eligibility for financial products and more. According to a report by the Brennan Center, these collateral consequences entrench people in poverty, worsening economic disparities between people of color and their counterparts in white communities, which translates to multibillion-dollar annual loss in the U.S. GDP. Pervasive marginalization also promotes a social stigma that disincentives personal progress. Without access to legitimate means for economic and housing stability, individuals may return to criminal behavior for survival.

Contrary to the notion that access to criminal records promotes public safety, the default to criminal activity following such disenfranchisement may have the opposite effect. This concern aside, research indicates that, after a few years, people carrying criminal records are statistically no more likely to commit crime than anybody else in the general population. Removing the additional impediments to full participation in contemporary society by expunging criminal records increases personal social capital, thereby reducing the likelihood of a return to criminal activity.

Following up on legislation enacted in 2014 to allow juveniles to expunge crimes when they reach the age of 18, the Illinois Legislature has introduced bills in both chambers to modernize the expungement process based on the research and experience of the few states which have reformed their systems. Senate Bill 1555 allows automatic expungement in those cases where there was ultimately no formal charge filed or if the charges brought were either dismissed or resulted in an acquittal. Criminal history records are also expunged automatically if a conviction was overturned or vacated. In addition to those situations, the proposed legislation provides for automatic sealing of many criminal records after serving a sentence or completing terms of court-ordered supervision or probation. HB 2793 provides for the sealing of many misdemeanors and a few non-violent offenses, with a provision that the record of the offense can be reinstated under certain conditions. Automatic expungement is allowed after different periods of time have elapsed, from two years to 10, depending on the type of offense.

As some states have adopted expungement practices for hundreds of nonviolent crimes, there are encouraging developments of this policy change that stand out. Pennsylvania passed automatic expungement reform (nicknamed “clean slate”) in 2018 and is well on its way to providing second chances for residents by sealing up to 30 million low-level criminal records. Michigan found, on average, over a 22 percent increase in income beyond economic expectations within a year of the expungement in comparison to their previous practices, and recently enacted comprehensive legislation to build on this success.

Auditing the efficacy of the recent experience in states has also revealed an administrative challenge to the existing expungement process. To date this process typically requires an application to the court and payment of a fee, probable hiring of an attorney and some period of time involved to get it all done. This includes the required determination to see if one is eligible, requesting records which involves another fee, and at times weeks to receive the records before requesting a ruling from a judge or magistrate. Sometimes a hearing was required and this process could take months because of regular court loads lately exacerbated by the pandemic protocols.

This is why Michigan revised its system implementing a new law providing automatic expungement for many crimes. The 2019 Michigan study cited above showed that only 6.5 percent of the people eligible for expungement were able to complete the process within five years. When New York expanded eligibility for expungement to an additional 600,000 or so people in 2017, they found that less than 1 percent had actually gotten an expungement two years later. The revised policy will enact a considerable shift to improving the criminal justice system.

We hope that Illinois steers into the vanguard of states that see both the compassion and the practical aspects of positively affecting outcomes in the criminal justice system by updating the system and making this data-driven public policy self-executing. Expungement has worked, and automatic expungement which serves both the government and the subjects of law enforcement equally, should work even better.

Image credit: Iuliia Sokolovska