On the Fourth of July last year, Jason Meekins, 18, was caught trying to steal $70 worth of alcohol from a Jewel in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. He was later convicted of retail theft. The Englewood resident, who is currently studying audio technology at SAE Institute Chicago, said his arrest has affected his employability. 

“I did get turned down from a couple of jobs,” he said. “They asked if I had a record and I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t think it was a big thing, because it wasn’t a felony. But they were like, ‘Nah, any charge is a thing.’ I feel like it can potentially prevent me from getting a job in the future.” 

That’s why Meekins was among those who converged on the massive campus of Living Word Christian Center, a megachurch in west suburban Forest Park, last Sat., June 6, for Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown’s annual Expungement Summit.

The day-long event, which Brown has been hosting for 11 years, typically draws anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 people from across the state looking to have their criminal records sealed or expunged at a fraction of the cost and complication of attempting the process themselves. 

 “It can be pretty difficult for the lay person to expunge or seal without an attorney,” said Jalyne Strong-Shaw, Brown’s chief public information officer. “You have to get your record, your rap sheet and know what’s expungable. Some cases are expungable and some aren’t. That’s something an attorney deciphers — a layperson usually can’t.”

Strong-Shaw said there’s also the matter of costs, which can include lawyer and application filing fees — costs that attendees of the annual Summits may be able to avoid altogether.

“Here, we have volunteer attorneys to look at your cases and they’ll explain to you what your options are, whether or not you qualify for expungement or sealing; assist you with filing the application on-site; and if you’re indigent or impoverished, you can go before a judge on-site to have your fees waived. If you need to pay filing fees, we have clerk’s office cashiers on-site. The last part is for all these petitions to go before judges who make the final decision.”

That last part, however, isn’t determined on-site, Strong-Shaw said. But once the application is sent off to a judge, the legwork is over and the only thing for an applicant to do is wait on a judge’s decision. How long a wait depends on a variety of factors, Strong-Shaw noted, adding that “at the most, the wait could be maybe six months.”

If all of those floating variables makes the expungement process a headache for individuals; it can provoke migraines for the Summit’s army of planners and volunteers, who may together see thousands of individual cases in the course of a day. 

“We’ve had anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 people at any one time and each of those people may have two or more cases,” Brown said. “So you’re talking about what could be 10,000 cases. They have to each get expunged or sealed one at a time.” 

But for all of the event’s complexity, Brown said her department may only spend around $10,000 or less. She said corporations like Walgreens donate food and supplies, while attorneys and judges volunteer their time. Strong-Shaw said the clerk’s office sends out an announcement each year for volunteer lawyers and gets a robust response. Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a criminal and legal services organization, trains lawyers to work the event, which runs for at least nine hours. 

But the crowds, the heat and the wait time is often a minor tradeoff for those looking for the opportunity to start their lives anew. When a criminal record is expunged, it’s essentially erased from the state’s memory — a person’s arrest record for the expunged case is no longer kept on the files of the arresting authority or of the state police and the arrestee’s name is removed from Circuit Court Clerk’s official index (or even destroyed). That way, prospective employers or law enforcement authorities can’t see it.

A sealed record is typically kept on the government’s file, but no one can see or access it except in special circumstances. For instance, the state can decide to unseal a record if it’s important to the public interest. 

It’s difficult to know the precise number of people in the city who have criminal backgrounds. One of the most comprehensive attempts to track this population was done by the Chicago Justice Project, which conducted a five-year analysis of conviction data in Cook County. The organization has noted that it accessed the data after threatening to sue the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. Moreover, the data is still incomplete due to a variety of factors.

“While we would have liked to have seen all convictions from 2005-2009, we aren’t sure if we received them all because we have only limited information on the total number of cases in the court system with which to compare the data,” the Chicago Justice Project states on the website, “Convicted in Cook,” on which it presents its data.

During that five-year time period, there were neatly 13,000 convictions in Austin, or 131 convictions per 1,000 residents. The organization’s data shows that most convictions in Cook County between 2005 and 2009 were related to drug possession and retail theft — 20 percent and seven percent, respectively. 

Brown said the demand for expungement and sealing services has increased as low level felony and misdemeanor convictions, most of them given to minority young people ages 18 to 29, have piled up. In a way, this population might be considered the domestic equivalent of collateral damage, the inconvenient fallout from the country’s various wars — on drugs, on crime and on terrorism. 

“You can go back to 1960s and 1970s, before Reagan put in those drug laws causing people to get arrested for small amounts of marijuana,” said Brown. 

“There’s been a significant increase in the number of people arrested and that means a significant increase in the number of people who need expungement,” she said, adding that, in the wake of 9/11 and the implementation of the Patriot Act, employers have been more vigilant about screening applicants and employees.

“I was talking to a 68-year-old great-grandmother who had one case when she was 17,” Brown said. “This is a 51-year-old case. She has 12 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and she’s here to get the case expunged, because all of a sudden, it showed up on her record. We have a teacher here who has been doing her fingerprints for 20 years and all of a sudden, a case showed up on her record.” 

“I work in social services and even employers who offer menial jobs are starting to look at backgrounds,” said Armosha Sturdivant, the president of the Peoria Black Chamber of Commerce. 

Sturdivant, along with Katie M. Blackman, clerk of the Circuit Court of Champaign County, were at Saturday’s Summit because they’re interested in putting one of these on in their areas of the state. Brown said the Cook County event is the only of its kind in Illinois.

“We have a Summit of Hope, but it doesn’t expunge your records and doesn’t even address records, it just tries to place you in a career or something.” 

Blakeman, who said she was ‘speechless’ at the range of on-site services offered at Brown’s event, noted that she’s looking to implement something similar in Champaign County, albeit on a smaller scale. 

Linda Barker, the founder of Sistas of the Hood, an Austin-based support services organization for convicted felons, said that events like Brown’s Summit offers a much-needed antidote to the prevalence of convictions throughout the state.

“This event gives people who’ve been convicted an opportunity to clear themselves, make the second step toward change, leave the old baggage behind and start life anew. That’s what it’s about. It’s kind of difficulty to get employed when you’ve got a mark on you.”  

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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