More than 150 people who attended a free program in Springfield on Oct. 19 emerged with a possible second chance.
The Expungement and Record Sealing Summit, hosted for the second year by the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk’s Office, gave pre-registered participants free, full-service assistance to get their adult criminal records possibly expunged or sealed.
Volunteer attorneys with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid joined forces with the circuit clerk’s office and several state agencies to provide the applicants with one-stop advice and guidance. The process to fill out and file expungement or sealing process paperwork usually takes many days, multiple visits and up to $2,000 in attorney’s fees. The legal advice was free on that Saturday, there were none of the customary court filing fees and even the usual Illinois State Police records fees were waived for participants.
According to Illinois law (20 ILCS 2630), expunge means “to physically destroy the records or return them to the petitioner and to obliterate the petitioner’s name from any official index or public record, or both.” Sealing means the criminal record is hidden from the public view, but certain agencies and employers can still see it.
Most of the men and women who went to the seminar, held at the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation, emerged much happier, confident and optimistic than they had entered.
“Like a new world has opened up to me”
Robert Minkler of Springfield had one goal when he signed up for the Expungement and Record Sealing Summit.“I want it gone,” said the 50-year-old Minkler.
“It” is a record that includes a drug paraphernalia and a battery charge from when he was much younger, a record that has followed Minkler ever since.
“I was the manager of a restaurant for a long time when that stuff happened, so I wasn’t judged by it because I had the job at the time,” Minkler said. “But later when I was wanting to get another job as a restaurant manager, I found out I won’t be able to because I have this stuff on my record. It makes me be viewed as a person that I haven’t been in 30 years.”
“I’m not the same person, so I would like that stuff gone so people stop judging me when I try to get a job. They still judge you, in spite of what they say,” Minkler said. “I was just a young, dumb kid back when I got the charges they brought against me. I would like to show that I am not that person now.”
Minkler looked into pursuing an expungement for his criminal record approximately 20 years ago. But at that time the attorney’s fees were $800, something he could not afford, and the current $2,000 rate is something he is even less able to afford now. Minkler was also worried that he might make a mistake on the paperwork and further delay or jeopardize the outcome.
Minkler appreciated the free assistance at the summit and is looking forward to the possibility that his record may be wiped clean or sealed.
“Oh, it will be great. It would make me feel like a new world has opened up to me,” Minkler said. “I could apply for jobs that I was unable to apply for, get a place to live where I was previously denied because of my record. So yeah, it would mean a lot to me.”
“You can actually get a second chance”
Frederick Epting has made mistakes in the past, with a record that includes possession of marijuana, battery and some serious traffic offenses.
“It’s like when you go in for an interview they’ve already got this biased opinion against you just because of something that happened a long, long time ago,” Epting said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in schooling and so forth, but even with education you’ve got to have a good record to move forward.”
Epting has run a day care operation from his home, has worked two to three jobs at a time as a single parent while raising his children and has pursued additional education as he tried to move forward in his life with the cloud of a criminal record hanging over his head. That’s why he signed up for the Expungement and Record Sealing Summit, and Epting was encouraged by his experience there.
“This is like a new start. It’s a big eye-opener,” Epting said. “It also reminds me of the beautiful things we have in America, where you can actually get a second chance at things.”
Epting recommended future summits to other people facing his same situation.
“It may cost you some time, research and money, but when you get on the path of doing right, there’s always that possibility that you can get a second chance,” Epting said. “It’s a beautiful thing to me.”
“It’s going to make me feel very accomplished”
Christopher Kraus, a 34-year-old Springfield resident, attended the Oct. 19 summit right before going to his current job.
“I’m here to get my record cleared up. I’ve been haunted for about 14 years now and it’s prevented me from getting certain jobs,” Krausa said. “Now, once this goes through, that will change.”
“I’ve been denied jobs because of the type of charge that I have, possession of a controlled substance,” Kraus said. “It hasn’t affected me here lately, but in the past when it was fresh I was getting denied left and right on jobs.”
“It’s going to make me feel very accomplished; it’s going to add another check mark to my goal list,” Kraus said. “I’m actually working toward full reinstatement of my driver’s license right now. I bought a brand-new car about three years ago, and now to top it off, if this goes through, many more job possibilities will open up for me.”
“It’s going to make me feel whole as a person”
A 41-year-old Springfield woman who only wanted to be known for this story as M.J. had hopes that her past drug and battery convictions could be made to go away.
“I really appreciate this event. I’m grateful, and I feel blessed having them help me to clear my background,” M.J. said. “Hopefully this will get taken care of so I can pursue my education in the medical field.”
“I currently work and I love my job, but I also love helping people and I wanted to find part-time work with maybe being an RN or a traveling nurse,” M.J. said. “And I couldn’t do it because of what happened in my past.”
M.J. hopes to give back to her community if she can clear her record.
“It’s going to make me feel whole as a person and let me work in a positive way in my community,” M.J. said.
“Like I’m reinvented”
“Oppressed, mad and tired,” is how 48-year-old Willie Lucas of Springfield described his feelings about having an old criminal record.
“It’s been a lot of trouble in my life. I’ve done time on this, I’ve been on probation, I’ve been through everything you can possibly go through dealing with this,” said Lucas of the cannabis charges he wants to get expunged. “It’s always a problem trying to get a job.”
Lucas was a happy recipient of the free services at the summit.
“I think this was a wonderful thing that they do. I feel that all of the people that need expungements or sealings, this is where they should be,” Lucas said. “It’s wonderful, it’s free, and all it takes is a little bit of your time.”
And if his bid for expungement is successful?
“I’ll feel like a brand-new man, a brand-new person, like I’m reinvented,” Lucas said. “I’ll feel like I got all of this stuff behind me and it’s sealed. I could not describe it any other way.”
“Like a new person, a better person”
George Earl has convictions for burglary, felony theft and criminal damage to a motor vehicle that have accumulated since he was young, but he’s trying to turn his life around.
“I’ve been clean, not in jail or anything, for eight years now. I’ve straightened up, I’ve cleaned up since I got married seven years ago,” said the 49-year-old Earl, a Springfield resident. “I’ve had a clean life (since then); I’ve had no run-ins with the law whatsoever.”
“I actually wanted to become part of law enforcement when I was young, but then I goofed up and went to the opposite side of the law and wish I’d never done it,” Earl said. “But that dream is gone; the only thing I can do now is to make the best of it.”
Earl said his record has kept him from getting good jobs, and has gotten him fired from several positions once background checks have been conducted by certain employers.
“I’m hoping this expungement process will help get something going now because it isn’t too late to start,” Earl said. “It’s been very helpful, and it’s a good start to try to move on and have a better life.”
According to Earl, putting his record behind him would transform his life.
“I would feel like a new person, a better person. It will make me feel cleaner, let me have a better life,” Earl said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted. I’ve been waiting since 1993 to get it expunged and cleaned up. My wife is going to be very happy.”
“Don’t count yourself out”
The Expungement and Record Sealing Summit attendees came in scheduled groups every hour for most of the recent Saturday session. County court officials and state agency representatives told them about the process, what help they could expect to receive from the experts on hand and how many months the entire process might take.
James Weitzel from the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk’s Office went over the process in detail with the attendees. It starts when the person obtains a petition for expungement or sealing and then prints a docket sheet detailing the entries in their criminal case. After filling out the petition and getting it stamped by the circuit clerk’s office, it can be entered into the court system and scheduled for a hearing. All of those services were provided free of charge for the Oct. 19 participants.
Weitzel said the next step is to give the Illinois State Police, the arresting agency, the sheriff’s department and the state’s attorney’s office 60 days to object to the petition to expunge or seal. After 60 days have lapsed, a court date takes place in order for the judge to review the petition. Someone from the state’s attorney’s office is present and indicates whether they object to or approve the petition, “and more often than not, if they do approve, the judge will sign off on the order,” Weitzel said.
If the judge approves, then it’s another 60 days for expungement or records sealing compliance by the Illinois State Police, the circuit clerk’s office, the sheriff’s department and any arresting agencies that may be involved. The whole process from start to finish is approximately four months, Weitzel told those assembled.
Ashley Richardson, from the Office of the State Appellate Defender, explained which offenses are eligible for possible expungement or sealing.
“Expungement is only for non-guilty offenses, meaning that the judge found you factually innocent in the case, or you received a misdemeanor that qualified you for supervision and you completed that satisfactorily,” Richardson said. “Or you had a felony conviction for which they gave you a special conditions probation, which if completed satisfactorily would be considered dismissed as well.”
Richardson said records sealing is possible for guilty verdicts for most offenses in Illinois, regardless of the class, with a few exceptions.
“In Illinois, records cannot be sealed for DUIs, sex offenses, crimes of violence which are only listed as domestic battery, violation of an order of protection, violation of a no stalking order, animal crimes and reckless driving,” Richardson said. “Anything else can be sealed after three years from the completion of the most recent conviction.”
Illinois Department of Employment Security representative Kala Young told attendees about programs that can help those with a criminal record to find and keep employment. The U.S. Department of Labor Work Opportunity Tax Credit is available to employers for hiring individuals from certain target groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.
Young said the other program is Fidelity Bonding, a business insurance policy that protects employers against employee dishonesty, theft or embezzlement. Fidelity Bonding features no-cost insurance coverage from $5,000 up to $25,000 that enables employers to hire job applicants considered to be “at risk” due to their past life experiences.
Summit attendees were given yet another option by someone who has been in their shoes. Marcella Kincaid was convicted of a drug offense in 1992, and it took her 25 years to clear her record. Kincaid was one of six people – out of 217 applicants – to receive clemency for her past offense from Governor Bruce Rauner in 2017. Since her conviction, she has earned a master’s degree and now works for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
“When seeking clemency, I told them I changed everything in my life. I’ve learned, don’t count yourself out,” Kincaid said. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself; get out of your pity party. I’m telling you, you can do this. I didn’t want my past to continue to haunt me.”
Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Paul Palazzolo has now held two of these summits. He praised the volunteers who made the recent event possible and said the summits are among the most rewarding things he has done in office.
“Hope is the key word, and we are humbled to be able to participate in delivering on hope, helping people to see a fresh start as a possibility,” Palazzolo said. “We hope they can achieve a success story here that will allow for future success stories.”
Anyone can obtain a petition at any time for the expungement or sealing of a past criminal history. Petitions are available at the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk’s Office.
The annual Expungement and Record Sealing Summit is the only time that petitioners can get free help with filling out the paperwork, obtain the materials needed to file the petition with the court at no charge and have the petitions filed with no circuit court filing fee.
The yearly summits are currently limited to 150 petitioners because that is all the volunteers can handle in one day, according to Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Paul Palazzolo. This year a few people had to be turned away, but those individuals will be put on a contact list for next year’s summit, Palazzolo said.
Aside from those who had to be turned away this year, there is no contact list for the 2020 event. It will be publicized with flyers, on the circuit clerk’s website, through a news release and by word-of-mouth.
Registration is first-come, first-serve and advance registration is mandatory so the volunteers can be sure they have all of the records needed for each participant’s case.
Visit www.sangamoncountycircuitclerk.org for information about the expungement and sealing process and to stay informed about the yet-to-be-scheduled 2020 event.