This Is Good Policy

Recently, as she walked her dog on a triple-digit summer evening near her home, PCG staffer Betsy Neely witnessed a common sight on the streets of Chicago—the arrest of a young African-American male. However, what was not so common was that Betsy also witnessed the young man return alone to his car some three hours later. This occurrence would appear to be evidence of a self-correcting criminal justice system. Unless, of course, you know that under the policies and procedures of the Illinois Criminal Justice System, arrests that result in dismissals and acquittals, or reversals and vacated sentences might remain on the arrestee’s Record of Arrest and Prosecution (RAP) sheet indefinitely.

When we—and Betsy (see her Faith Reflection, Reflection on a Broken System )—weigh our Christian principles against what we see on the streets and hear about the policies that govern the Illinois criminal justice system, we ask, “How can this be?” What most citizens do not realize is that those simple street arrests that we all witness in the Chicago area are not quite so simple. Those arrests create records—RAP sheets—that have permanent consequences and that severely undermine the ability of the arrestee to be made whole and to flourish.

Prior to August 19, 2011, if a person’s RAP sheet consisted only of arrest(s) with no convictions, s/he could petition the court to have the arrest[s] expunged. However, if s/he had one conviction or more, any subsequent arrest that did not lead to a conviction could not be expunged/sealed from the person’s RAP sheet. This scenario has led to many horror stories and denied housing, employment, and educational opportunities to thousands based on misleading and/or misinterpreted RAP sheets.

Take the case of a man who was once convicted of a low-level drug charge and nine years later was arrested again as a suspect in a murder case. It did not matter that he was cleared in the murder case and released a day later. His RAP sheet reflected his possible involvement in a murder, and those who viewed his RAP sheet for housing, employment, or enrollment in a educational program either knew how to interpret a RAP sheet and the weight to be given an arrest event or they didn’t, and most average (non-law enforcement) people do not. This unintended consequence has lead to discrimination and the marginalizing of literally thousands of Illinois citizens every year because the court had no jurisdiction over the sealing of an unfounded arrest when there was a prior conviction.

However, as of August 19, 2011, thanks to the unyielding dedication of Representative Constance Howard, the sponsor of HB 298, the court now has jurisdiction to seal arrests where there was a dismissal, acquittal, reversal, or vacated conviction that occurred subsequent to a prior conviction.

Congratulations to the advocates at the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic, Protestants for the Common Good, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the Safer Foundation, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and all those who worked to pass HB 298 in the spring session of the General Assembly. We worked together on behalf of the many private citizens whose names are unknown but who have suffered severe economic and social sanctions as a result of this long-overlooked flaw in the Illinois criminal justice system.

We thank all of the chief sponsors and co-sponsors who recognized the value and basic fairness of HB 298, and we salute Governor Pat Quinn for his wisdom and compassion in signing the bill into law. This is good policy!

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