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Legislature Approves Bill to Seal Some Felony Convictions; Advocates Say for More Than 36,000 Former Prisoners Each Year, Finding Work Will Be Easier.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Nov. 10 /PRNewswire/ -- Today's 33 to 23 Veto Session vote in the state Senate sealed the successful passage through the Legislature of SB 3007, which allows for sealing of residents' non-violent felony criminal records to ease their re-entry into society after time in prison. Governor Rod Blagojevich has indicated he would sign the bill after the Legislature approved it. The Senate and the House passed the measure in the regular session, but friendly amendments were added in the House requiring the concurrence of the Senate. Due to wrangling over the budget, the bill was never called for concurrence.

"Last year more than 36,000 prisoners were released in Illinois. Without this bill, half of all those released from prison would end up back in jail within three years," said state Rep Connie Howard, D-34, the bill's prime co-sponsor in the House. "This bill gives those individuals a second chance."

Cook County Board President John Stroger, who supported the bill, added, "Most Chicago ex-offenders return to high-crime and low-employment communities. This leads to difficulties not only for the ex-offenders themselves but contributes to neighborhood deterioration. Easing their transition back to public life will improve neighborhoods and the city as a whole, not to mention saving the state money."

The bill, which takes effect in 2005, provides for sealing of records for employment purposes that include Class 4 felony violations for prostitution as well as a misdemeanor or Class 4 felony possession violation of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act or the Cannabis Control Act. It is designed to help former prisoners find work by allowing them to avoid reporting their nonviolent crimes to prospective employers.

Class 4 non-violent felonies are the least severe class of felony. A typical Class 4 felony in Illinois is a second offense of possession of 10.1 to 30.0 grams of marijuana or a first offense of possessing 30.1 to 500.0 grams, and carries a sentence of one to three years in prison and fine of up to $25,000.

"It costs us more than $25,000 a year to send someone to prison," said state Sen. John Cullerton, D-6, the bill's prime sponsor in the Senate. "Helping people re-integrate into society doesn't just help the individual, it helps the state. People with jobs will be less likely to turn to crime, which means fewer people in prison."

Under SB 3007, law enforcement officials retain access to the sealed criminal records. So do those screening for certain occupations, such as child care workers and school bus drivers. Petitioners for sealing of records that include drug-related offenses must accompany their request with a letter from a certified health facility that shows the individual has been off drugs for the previous 30 days.

Another provision of the bill calls for a study produced jointly by the Illinois departments of Employment Security and Corrections to determine the rate of recidivism among those whose records are sealed. The study is to be completed by September 2006.

"Illinois' African Americans are 15 percent of the state's illicit drug users, but they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and more than 75 percent of the total drug prisoners in Illinois," noted Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, whose office will administer the petition process. "Sealing records will drop one of the most significant barriers they face in finding work." More than 44 percent of Illinois' drug prisoners are from Cook County.

Passage of the bill is a victory for the Developing Justice Coalition, a group of community-based organizations whose members have visited Springfield more than a dozen times since the beginning of the session. The group was spurred on to the effort that resulted in SB 3007 by a new law effective January 1, 2004 that opened the opportunity for expungement of criminal records to some offenders.

"We're rejoicing that our legislators have seen the light on this issue," said Patricia Watkins, Convener of the Developing Justice Coalition and Executive Director of Target Area Development Corp. "We look forward to using this new tool to help improve our neighborhoods and reduce recidivism."

Arrests for drug offenses have fueled rapid increases in incarceration and attendant costs. In 1980, Illinois spent $377 million on prisons, Watkins noted. In 2000, it spent $1.3 billion, a more than 200 percent increase.

The Developing Justice Coalition includes Ambassadors for Christ Church, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Community Renewal Society, Developing Communities Project, Foster Park Neighborhood Council, Garfield Area Partnership, Global Outreach Ministries, ACORN, Innercity Muslim Action Network, Northwest Neighborhood Federation, Organization of the North East, Southwest Organizing Project, Target Area Development Corp., SERV-US, West Side Health Authority and Protestants for the Common Good.

CONTACT: Laurie Glenn-Gista for Developing Justice Coalition, +1-773-832-9101, Cell, +1-773-704-7246, Telefax, +1-773-832-9180, or E-mail, lrglenn@lrglenn.com
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