Imagine there’s a car theft ring sweeping through Chicago. One day you look up and see pictures of several acquaintances on the news. To your shock, these people who you thought you knew were actually leading double lives and devastating communities through their criminal behavior.
You hear a knock on the door. It’s the police. Turns out those acquaintances-turned-car thieves implicated you as an accomplice in their scheme. Within a 24-hour whirlwind, you have been arrested, charged with a felony and branded via public records as a criminal.
Except there’s a catch – you didn’t do it.
But this is America, right? Eventually justice will prevail and the truth will come out, you tell yourself. And indeed it does. The prosecutor eventually concludes you had nothing to do with the theft ring, so they let you go. Charges dropped; case dismissed. You can now restore your life, freedom and – perhaps most importantly – your good name.
In Illinois, however, restoring your good name comes with a hefty price tag –$120. That’s the cost to apply for an arrest expungement in Cook County. In several downstate counties, the expungement application fees are as high as $300 or $400, with no guarantee of success.
These cases are more common than most people realize. Nineteen percent of Cook County Jail inmates end up leaving the jail because their charges get dropped entirely, meaning more than 13,000 Cook County arrestees in 2015 alone were told they could not expunge those arrests without paying the piper.
One hundred twenty dollars is a lot of money to a lot of people. Consider the 200 people in Cook County Jail who could walk out the door right now if they had $500 to post bond. Do we really think that someone who can’t come up with $500 to restore his or her freedom will have $120 sitting around to wade through the tangled legal web of arrest expungements? And even if they do, does that make it right?
This unjust process leaves these tens of thousands of Illinoisans with an unbearable Sophie’s choice – fork over $120 to the very government that erroneously arrested and incarcerated them in the first place, or go through life with their records stained by offenses they simply did not commit.
With the support of state Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago) and Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), I have introduced and advocated for state legislation that would end this insidious practice of funding government on the backs of the poor and desperate. This sweeping reform bill would do away with the expungement fee entirely for those who have had their case dropped, found not guilty, or acquitted.
HB 6328 would also address a flaw in the system that bars people from applying for arrest expungements following dropped charges if they have a prior, unrelated conviction on their record. For example, if you were convicted of drug possession in the early 1990s and, years later, are falsely arrested for retail theft. Under current law, your expungement application will be rejected due to the drug crime from 25 years ago. This is the type of sinister stigma that destroys lives and fuels the cycle of mass incarceration decried by legislators and thought leaders across the ideological spectrum.
My legislation passed the House with strong bi-partisan support, but has now been held up in the State Senate following pushback from the Illinois State Police, who claim that they count on the hundreds of thousands of dollars brought in by these expungement fees. I dare say that if government must generate revenue by picking the pockets of poor people, perhaps we never deserved that money in the first place. This is simply an unconscionable case of government actively working against the people it is supposed to serve.
While we all understand that agency budgets are strapped across the board, I would like to think that we can find more thoughtful methods of funding state services. By allowing the innocent to clear their name and restoring access to expungements to those with unrelated prior felonies, we can enhance their ability to secure jobs, pay taxes and become productive members of society.
The eyes of the nation are on Illinois – and for all the wrong reasons. We have redefined the very notion of dysfunctional government. Wouldn’t it be nice if our legislators could take a break from pointing fingers over the state of our State to do right by the most vulnerable among us? By restoring the good names and reputations of thousands of innocent people, we can renew hope for redemption, economic opportunities and a sense of justice to a system sorely lacking in it.
Tom Dart is the sheriff of Cook County.