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Expungement project aims to remove misconceptions

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Maria Kantzavelos

An initiative that kicked off in July 2010, touting a "very lofty goal" of expunging or sealing every eligible criminal record in Evanston, culminated Saturday with a community-wide expo that drew about 150 people, the executive director of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy said this week.

Clearly, said Naria K. Santa Lucia, who directs the center formerly known as the Evanston Community Defender Office Inc., the stated vision of the legal aid organization's All Clear Evanston project is not likely to be realized. The notion of addressing every eligible criminal record in town was included in material posted on the center's website to publicize the project, and she said it is "an ongoing mission, at this point."

"We know we'll probably never accomplish that vision of sealing every person's record," Santa Lucia said. "But, by putting it out there, we want to continue to educate people in the community about the need to expunge or seal their criminal record, and to make it easier to do that."

A "back goal" of the project, which has had the Moran Center partnering with numerous Evanston-based social service agencies from July 2010 to May 2011, is "to really deter criminal arrests in general," Santa Lucia said. "We do want to show people how difficult it is, and what a barrier a record can be to employment, housing and financial aid [for college-bound students]."

On Saturday, the Moran Center — together with the City of Evanston, the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's Office, the Rogers Park-based Project NIA, Youth Job Center of Evanston Inc., Cabrini Green Legal Aid and the Legal Assistance Foundation — presented the first annual Northern Cook County Informational Expungement Expo at the Levy Senior Center in Evanston.

The free event allowed participants to talk with attorneys about their criminal records and to hear presentations about the challenges that criminal record-holders face.

"This event was a great opportunity to give north Chicago and North Shore residents the chance to meet with volunteer attorneys for free to find out their options regarding sealing, expungement and executive clemency," Youth Job Center Employment Outreach Coordinator Jordan Burghardt said in a prepared statement.

Santa Lucia said about 14 volunteer attorneys participated in the expo, many of them through the Moran Center, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which helps pro se clients file for record expungements or document sealing from an assistance desk at the Daley Center in Chicago.

About 100 of the expo attendees were seeking information about clearing their records, Santa Lucia said. But most of them — around 85 percent — had records of criminal offenses that were not eligible for sealing or expungement, she said.

"In those cases, we counseled them on the clemency process and what they could do to draft a successful clemency petition, although they are pretty rare to be granted," Santa Lucia said.

Legal aid providers in recent years, especially since the recession, have seen a growing number of unemployed job seekers in need of assistance with clearing their criminal records.

"We've seen a huge increase," Santa Lucia said. "Jobs are scarce in general, so if you have any ding at all, chances are low that you're going to get a position when there are hundreds of other applicants without records applying."

The Evanston-based Moran Center, which is among the legal aid groups that have seen how the nation's economic decline in recent years has not only intensified the demand for free legal help across the board, but also more specifically in the suburbs, last year opened a help desk in Cook County's 2nd Municipal District courthouse in Skokie that focuses on expungements and sealings of criminal records.

The Moran Center, which has a staff of only four attorneys, operates the desk from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"Even up north, where you'd think there's not a lot of need for this kind of stuff, we'll see 10 to 15 people a day," Santa Lucia said. "That's a lot."

Last year, the desk served nearly 600 people in an 11-month period.

Santa Lucia said the purpose of the expo on Saturday in Evanston was not only to assist participants in reviewing their criminal histories and helping those found eligible to begin the record-clearing process, but also to arm attendees with information about the importance and process of clearing adult and juvenile records.

She cited statistics from 2004 showing that there were 47,732 juveniles between the ages of 10 and 16 who were arrested in Illinois that year, but of those arrests only 95 juvenile expungement petitions were filed.

"Kids have a misconception that just because I have a juvenile record it's expunged automatically. But that's not the case. You have to take the extra step to expunge it," Santa Lucia said.

In the cases of adults, she said, "a lot of people think, in seven years my record is gone.

"The reality is that you have to physically file a petition to seal or expunge. … It's very nuanced and complicated."

She said her agency is aware of instances where employers in the midst of layoffs have run criminal background checks on longtime employees.

"One had a conviction that was sealable. The employer ran his record and laid him off. Not because he had a conviction, but because he lied on his application," Santa Lucia said. "These are the kinds of things we want to prevent from happening."

A key component of the organization's All Clear Evanston project, which was funded by a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, involved the training of staff members at area social service agencies on the law related to record expungements or document sealing, and reaching out to the agencies' clients.

The idea, Santa Lucia said, has been to partner with the social service groups to help "build the capacity of the community in general to identify people who have eligible records."

[Expunging and/or sealing every eligible criminal record in Evanston] is "a lofty goal, and we'll probably never meet it," Santa Lucia said. "And we definitely can't meet it on our own."



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