Photo by Antonio Dickey
Cook County Clerk of Court Dorothy Brown supervises volunteer attorneys as they assist visitors to the Cook County Expungment Summit.
Job seekers can take nothing for granted. Not that their experience and skills will be enough, that the applicant pool will be favorable or that a run-in with the law, even years ago, won’t be a factor.
A few days before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued BMW and Dollar General for violating the Civil Rights Act in regard to their background check practices, which cost 72 people their jobs, a long line stretched down the sidewalk at the New Faith Baptist Church, in southern Cook County, Ill. It was populated by residents who hoped to wipe their public records of non-violent offenses clean at the county’s expungement summit and revive their career prospects.
Photo by Charlie Ban
(l–r) Mike Myers, community corrections manager for Douglas County, Neb., and Don Klemme, director of the Arapahoe County, Colo. Community Resources Department, examine a day room in the Cook County Jail’s oldest building, dating back to the 1920s.
It was the ninth such full-service summit, coordinated by Dorothy Brown, clerk of circuit court in Cook County, and capped a three-day NACo summit on Smart Justice in Cook County. According to her staff, more than 750 people registered for the one-day event. More than 200 people filed successfully for expungement, the rest were referred to volunteer attorneys to examine other options.
“The opportunity to expunge a record means so much,” Brown said. “It opens doors for people’s ability to support themselves.”
She recalled a woman who, after working for years in Cook County, moved to Florida and tried to find a job in nursing. Despite her decades of experience, she was stymied by her criminal record, a minor incident in 1975 that nonetheless left her waiting for calls for interviews that weren’t going to come.
The woman returned to Cook County and ultimately came to Brown’s office, hoping to do something about her record.
“I looked at it and told her it was probably sealable,” Brown said. “She just started crying. It felt like a load had been lifted.”
Her experience mirrored that of a 19-year-old man who was able to get into the armed services after an incident when he was 14 was expunged.
“Some people made a mistake, or they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they had a bad lawyer who advised them to take a plea bargain to get something out of the way when they were innocent,” Brown said.
Seventy-five attorneys, organized by the Cabrini Green Legal Aid clinic, volunteered their time, staying more than two hours after the doors closed at 6 p.m. Seven judges showed up to move things along, and more than 300 volunteers who work for the clerk of court’s office staffed all kinds of functions.
“Having the judges there made a world of difference,” said Beth Johnson, a program director for the clinic. “It was a great collaboration between the county and the judiciary. For a lot of people, it meant saving them a day going downtown to take care of things.”
Patrick Reardon, an assistant to the county’s public defender, recognized the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirming Clarence Earl Gideon’s right to an attorney.
“Clerk Brown’s expungement summit is carrying on what started 50 years ago by Gideon v. Wainwright,” he said to those assembled at the beginning of the summit. “People deserve second chances.”
State representatives gave updates on bills in various stages of the legislative process, including that seven additional felonies could potentially be sealed in records, other felonies that are being downgraded to misdemenors and “ban the box” legislation that would force employers to remove questions about an applicant’s criminal record before the interview process.
The attendees were separated by the offense they wished to address, and went off to do just that with the prison review board, public defender’s office, state’s attorney’s office and the clerk of court’s office.
Exhibitors from dozens of government agencies and nonprofit organizations were on hand, in addition to some businesses to advertise job openings. Brown’s office distributed a list of more than 200 employers with histories of hiring applicants with criminal records. Fees were waived for many of the functions for applicants who could demonstrate inability to pay.
One young man took the day off of work to have his record expunged, but first had to swear to a judge that because he was just starting his job, he didn’t have the disposable income to pay his fees. While he was there, he had the judge sign an affidavit that proved he was at the expungement summit to show his boss.
Brown started the summit in an effort to bring awareness to the continuing problems that a prior criminal record could bring to a job seeker. She felt it was a way to enact one of her campaign pledges to bring her office to the people.
NACo President Chris Rodgers told the crowd that the summit was exactly what he envisioned in a smart justice program. He recalled coming home to East St. Louis, Ill. after his freshman year in college to find his uncle, a habitual drug offender, living in a refrigerator box on his grandmother’s porch.
“His drug problem has taken him in and out of jail, trying to battle it, and I’m sympathetic to that because I know there are a lot of similar people around this country with that same issue,” he said, “with low and minor offenses that have to be given grace, to have a second chance.”
He said he hoped the model Brown had established could be replicated in other counties across the country. Brown said the most important step a county could take in doing so would be to get the clerk of courts involved.
“That office is the nucleus of the wheel,” she said. “We accept the filings, so everything would go through that office.”
Any expungement summit would follow a state’s expungement law, and in some cases legislative pressure to broaden it can help clarify how cases are treated. The state’s attorney and public defender’s office, and public safety agencies are also key.
“People have served their times, police agencies should not have a problem with helping people get on with their lives,” Brown said.
Cook County, Ill. Smart Justice Symposium
Before the clerk of court’s expungement summit, the NACo Smart Justice Symposium, June 6–8, touched on two crucial parts of the Cook County, Ill. justice environment.
A trip to the Cook County Jail June 6 included a walk through a new building that reflected the county’s effort to build a jail incorporating the needs of the professionals working inside. It was clear this was no longer Al Capone’s jail.
The new building, with more open space and no bars, contrasted dramatically with the jail’s oldest building, from the 1920s, which remains in use. In the mental health screening area for inmate processing, alcoves — enclosed with windows — provided privacy yet maintained a line of sight for guards. The new building also has separate areas for men and women under one roof, a departure from the older, single-sex buildings.
Tour participants from a variety of counties remarked on several innovative measures the jail took, including:
- refusing to take gang affiliation into account when assigning housing for inmates, which delegitimizes the gang power structure in the jail
- centralizing clothing intake and storage facilities, which freed almost a dozen staffers to work elsewhere, and
- stressing inmate education by locating classrooms in one building.
The 96-acre site is one of the largest single-site jails in the country, averaging more than 9,000 inmates with roughly 200 coming in and out daily. Seventy percent of inmates are nonviolent offenders, and 90 percent of all inmates are awaiting trial.
The next day’s meeting offered several perspectives on the barriers that exist once people complete their sentences and try to return to their normal lives.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addressed these difficulties: “The longer you stay (in jail), the more likely you are to lose your job, to lose your place in school and to be estranged from your family,” she said. “It’s a profoundly disturbing fact that I think is characteristic not just of Cook County but of most of our counties. We have to be smarter on justice and not just tough on crime.”
She was encouraged, politically, that there was pressure from fiscal conservatives to look at the cost of incarceration, given the comparatively lower costs of treating nonviolent offenders and electronic monitoring.
The theme throughout the day hammered home that the local economy is largely missing out on the contributions from people whose criminal records stand in their way of getting a job. And, without that job and a means to provide for themselves and their families, people are more likely to reoffend.
Elected county officials, county staff members and representatives from various organizations discussed their local approaches to helping reduce unemployment in their populations who had been in jail at one point. That included creating incentives for employers to hire from that population, fostering mentoring relationships between people who have successfully continued their careers after incarceration and ways to understand the legal jungle that people in that situation face.
Photo by Charlie Ban
NACo President Chris Rodgers and Cook County, Ill. Commissioner Gregg Goslin inspect the video monitoring system in the Cook County Jail’s new building.