For people with past arrests or convictions, expunging or sealing their records can open back up access to social services, housing, eligibility for jobs and other forms of participation in society that have been cut off.
On Jan. 1, 2020, Illinois legalized cannabis and added a host of cannabis-related arrests and convictions to the list of offenses eligible for expungement and sealing. While it's not known exactly how many people are affected, 365,069 people were convicted of drug crimes in Illinois in the last 40 years, according to a 2020 study by the Heartland Alliance.
In Cook County, Illinois, Legal Aid Chicago and Chapman and Cutler LLP have launched a web application, the Legal Aid Chicago Criminal Records Relief Petitions App, to help automate the process of clearing clients' records in an effort to meet a growing need. A total of 3.3 million people in the state have acquired criminal records since 1979, so while not all records are eligible for expungement or sealing, the work ahead is vast.
"It's a complicated procedure, probably more complicated than it needs to be, and there are so many people who are eligible who might not even know it," Chapman pro bono counsel Sara Ghadiri told Law360.
Expungement and sealing is also a racial justice issue, with Black people making up 13.8% of Illinois' adult population, but 28.9% of the population with a criminal record, according to the Heartland Alliance.
Legal Aid Chicago, which provides free legal representation to people in Chicago and suburban Cook County, runs expungement clinics, with volunteer attorneys preparing expungement petitions for thousands of clients. But the forms are complicated even for lawyers, and Legal Aid staffers found themselves having to provide a lot of assistance to well-intentioned but non-specialist volunteer attorneys.
"The language on these forms is not intuitive and in one case consists of a string of double negatives," Melissa Picciola, Legal Aid Chicago's director of volunteer services, told Law360. "Pre-COVID, I would walk around the room while pro bono attorneys were preparing the petitions and work with them on figuring out which boxes to check. "
The app, built by Chapman's practice innovations team using a tech platform known as Community.lawyer, walks people through the process of drafting expungement and sealing petitions, adding guidance text and translating some of the questions to plain language.
The app is expected to make the expungement process easier and faster. Picciola estimates a case file for one client takes three to four hours to prepare the old way, and the app might cut that time in half. This could make it less daunting to volunteer at expungement clinics and will allow volunteers to complete more petitions per shift, Ghadiri said.
"I think it's really going to change the number of people who are willing to volunteer in order to meet the need," Ghadiri told Law360.
Picciola estimates that pro bono attorneys have processed 120 criminal record relief cases since March, both cannabis-related and not.
"Very rarely does a client only have cannabis on their record, so they would have been eligible previously," Picciola said. "That being said, we encourage everyone to call us so we can take a look at their record and see what relief they may be eligible for, cannabis-related or otherwise, and we can assist them with all of it."
The prevalence of criminal records in Illinois — 3.3 million people, or 26% of Illinois' 2020 population, has a criminal record — is no accident. There are 1,189 laws on the books in Illinois that restrict access to employment, education, housing and more for people with criminal records, according to the Heartland Alliance report, which calls them "permanent punishment laws."
Short of these laws being changed retroactively, clearing criminal records by petitioning the court is the only way for people affected to regain full access to employment, housing, education or other services, Picciola said.
"Briefly put, expungement and sealing allows someone to put their past behind them and move on with their life."
Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.