Desperate to curb the gun violence wracking their city, Chicago lawmakers are leading the way toward a counterintuitive idea — fighting crime by making it easier for young people to wipe away minor arrest records.
The goal is to give tens of thousands of teens a better chance to find work or get into college, rather than letting a minor episode with police possibly doom them to a life on the gang-dominated streets of some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.
A law recently passed by the state Legislature made Illinois one of the few states to automatically expunge the criminal records of juveniles who were arrested but never charged.
Mariama Bangura, 17, was arrested last year after she was accused of threatening a teacher. Though she was never charged, she worries that the incident could sink her adult ambitions.
"I want to be a nurse or massage therapist, and what if the whole thing keeps coming up?" she asked. "I want a career."
Expungement is not a new idea. The service has long been available for minor arrests and convictions if people know about it and can afford to hire an attorney. The Illinois law makes it automatic for offenses that happen in a specific time frame.
Last year in Cook County alone, about 16,000 juvenile arrests would have been eligible for expungement. Of those, only 661 people applied. All but one succeeded in having their records cleared.
That means tens of thousands of young people have arrest records that could derail applications for public housing, financial aid, a teaching certificate or a license to cut hair.
Chicago lawmakers also led the push to "ban the box," a reference to the box on many employment applications that asks job seekers whether they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. The proposal would prevent businesses with 15 or more employees from asking about applicants' criminal records before offering a job interview. The measure was approved this past spring and signed Saturday by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Employers can still ask about criminal history later in the job-application process.
Together, the two measures mark a shift in focus away from simply punishing crime to removing some of the most common obstacles that prevent people with minor records from building self-sufficient lives.
"Chicago continues to be riddled with crime because ex-offenders return without opportunities to be productive citizens," said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, sponsor of the one of the proposals.
The shift was on full display last fall when several black state lawmakers blocked a bill to impose stiffer prison sentences for illegal gun possession, which they saw as little more than a recipe to lock up more blacks and Latinos. The measure was strongly supported by both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
"Our jails are busting at the seams," said state Rep. Arthur Turner of Chicago, sponsor of the expungement bill. "So we'd like to take a different approach here in Illinois."
To reduce violence, Chicago has also tried flooding the streets with more police officers and setting up meetings between families of murder victims and gang members. One group has even offered yoga in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods in the hopes of easing tensions.
Emanuel threw his support behind the expungement bill, calling it a key component of a softer approach to crime fighting. Other efforts have included beefing up summer jobs program and providing gang members with information about social services.
"Our goal is to keep them on track to graduate, have a promising career, maybe go to college," Emanuel said. "If they have a record, it's harder, (and) if they don't have a record, they'll get a job, and they will be less likely to have a life of crime."
Under the expungement bill, arrests that did not result in formal charges — excluding sex crimes and some other serious offenses — will be expunged if the offender turned 18 in the last year and has had no other arrests since the original arrest.
State Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican, was one of dozens of Illinois lawmakers to vote against the bill, saying that he was concerned about the message it sends to young offenders — that there aren't any real consequences for their actions until they are adults "and do something really serious."
To gain support from law-enforcement agencies, the sponsors had to scale back the measure in ways that supporters say watered it down. For example, the bill did not include a provision to retroactively expunge records of those arrested before Jan. 1 of next year, a disappointment to community activists who wanted to help people like Bangura, who must still apply to have their records expunged.
That is disappointing to a 19-year-old college student who was arrested for trespassing after he hopped a fence when he was 17.
The young man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his education and job prospects, worries that his record could somehow prevent him from getting an internship or a job. And he says he does not dare try to have his record expunged out of concern that doing so might somehow affect his status as a legal immigrant from Ecuador.
"I am concerned that even with my skills, they will look at my record and then, just because of this, say, 'We can't hire you."
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