LAI advocates for expungement, passes legislation in Illinois
Last spring, Illinois unanimously passed legislation allowing expungement for exonerees who have successfully proven their innocence. Although a conviction may be overturned, it remains on an exoneree’s record unless expunged, making jobs and access to housing all but impossible. The passage of our proposed legislation validated over a year’s worth of research, drafting, conference calls, legislator outreach, testifying, and general advocating on the part of numerous individuals and organizations..
An expungement destroys or eliminates one’s criminal record, at least for a particular conviction. Generally, it is a very exclusive remedy provided only to individuals meeting the rigorous statutory requirements. Individuals seek expungements in order to gain employment or access to housing, as one’s criminal record often presents a barrier to accomplishing such basic and necessary goals. In essence, an expungement represents a government-sanctioned washing of previous transgressions and rebirth into one’s community. For exonerees, an expungement can provide a new opportunity or a fresh start where their past is mired with the record of a wrongful conviction.
Previously, the statute provided for either an automatic expungement or automatic sealing (similar to expungement but a lesser form) for exonerees who had proven their innocence and received a Certificate of Innocence. LAI, through continued work with exonerees, felt that individuals who have proven their innocence should have the record of their wrongful conviction expunged rather than just sealed. With the assistance and advocacy of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, LAI proposed legislation implementing this belief.
Legislators in Springfield shared the vision. LAI was able to testify before the Senate Criminal Law Committee on the importance and effect of the bill. Due to the growing support for the wrongfully convicted, the bill passed via House sponsor, Representative Monique Davis with assistance from Speaker Mike Madigan, Senator Dan Kotowski, and Senator Kwame Raoul. Furthermore, the bill received significant bipartisan support.
Although the legislation is only a small step towards redressing injustice for wrongfully convicted, it is a significant step. Furthermore, it highlights the power and effect that dedicated and motivated groups and individuals can have over larger policy decisions. While we cannot erase the years someone lost languishing in prison wrongfully, nor can we give them back those years, we can continue searching for solutions. Possibly just as important, we can and will continue seeking justice and support after exoneration. LAI is hopeful that Public Act 98-0133 represents the seed from which further changes will grow.