Both the Illinois House and Senate have approved a new bill that would expand the types of felonies that are available to be sealed from public view. Under the change, courts could seal convictions for theft, retail theft, deceptive practices and forgery, possession of burglary tools and small amounts of cannabis, controlled substances, methamphetamine ingredients, steroids, so long as it was the person’s only conviction and they have not had any arrests in four years.The bill now awaits Governor Quinn’s signature in order to become law.
Lawmakers have approved a proposal that would significantly expand the list of felony convictions that people seeking to escape their criminal pasts could ask to have sealed.
The measure, which aims to give ex-offenders a better shot at jobs, housing and education, awaits a decision by Gov. Pat Quinn on whether to sign it into law.
The bill would require convicts to have a clean record for at least four years. If so, they could ask a judge to seal their convictions from the public, so only law enforcement officials, judges and professional license regulators could see them.
Currently, the law generally allows the sealing of convictions for nonviolent misdemeanors and only two felonies — prostitution and the possession of small amounts of drugs.
The proposed changes would allow the courts to seal from the public record convictions for theft, retail theft, deceptive practices and forgery, as well as convictions for lower-level possession of cannabis, controlled substances, methamphetamine ingredients, steroids and burglary tools.
The changes could offer a chance for clean records to a much broader swath of people than the small percentage of convicts who are now eligible.
“This would be huge,” said defense attorney Matt Fakhoury, a former prosecutor who specializes in clearing up past convictions.
“People are most frustrated when their economic opportunities are limited because of the trouble they got themselves into when they were younger,” he said. “It’s going to give them hope for a brighter economic future.”
Perhaps the most common violation that shadows low-level offenders, Fakhoury said, is retail theft. Under current law, walking out without paying for a pair of jeans worth more than $150 could result in a felony conviction that would follow someone the rest of his or her life.
Almost half of prior offenders without jobs commit another crime, compared with only 8 percent of those who have jobs — yet most employers won’t hire someone with any kind of criminal conviction, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The bill also sets the criteria that judges may consider in weighing such cases, including the petitioner’s age, criminal and work history, and how long it’s been since the last offense.
Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored the bill. Ford said the subject is important for minorities, who are often denied jobs because of criminal records. He said that may lead to them becoming tax burdens rather than taxpayers.
Ford himself has pleaded not guilty to bank fraud charges, but they are at the federal level and would not be affected by the legislation.
“We should do everything we can to give people a second chance,” he said. “That’s what this country is about — opportunity.”
Opponents raised concerns about keeping offenders accountable for their actions, but Ford said under the bill anyone who commits another crime would have their records made public and could never seal them again.
After negotiations with lawmakers and prosecutors to remove more serious crimes from the bill, Ford said, some opponents dropped their objections and the bill passed with some bipartisan support. The Senate approved it 42-13 last week. The Illinois attorney general and Cook County state’s attorney took no public position on the idea, and neither has the governor’s office, Quinn spokesman David Blanchette said.