Economic sanctions. Collateral consequences. Permanent punishments. There are 44,000 restrictive federal laws, rules, and policies that continue to penalize people long after they have served their sentence in prison. Permanent Punishment, a four-part series, examines this stark reality faced by nearly 3.3 million men and women in Illinois.
Cook County is home to an estimated 1.3 million people with criminal records. Those records can sometimes limit people from certain jobs, housing or even educational opportunities.
The Paper Prisons Initiative estimates more than 500,000 people are eligible to have their records cleared. But advocates say that’s not happening for many of them.
It’s an issue that disproportionately affects Black people, particularly in the Chicago area, says Aisha Edwards, executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid.
“The demographics of the population that we serve is over 78% African American. There is also about 10% Latino population. So significantly our population, as people of color, have been impacted by those records and those arrests that need to be addressed,” Edwards said.
Edwards explained two of the options available to the formerly incarcerated for clearing their records.
“Expungement and sealing are remedies for those who have a record. Expungement, you can explain it as almost like erasing it so that the record is actually destroyed. Sealing, however, it just has it from public view for the most part. A lot of times, things that are sealed are still accessible for those who work in law enforcement, so it’s not permanently gone and so it still may be available to certain government actions, folks seeking government employment,” Edwards said. “The benefits range significantly from being able to access employment, housing … access to benefits, access to resources to go back to school and things of that nature. But I think another important barrier that helps overcome is sometimes an emotional barrier to those who come out and have been impacted by the record and feel like they can’t do anything.”
Candace Chambliss, legal director of the Illinois Prison Project, works primarily on obtaining clemency for incarcerated people.
“Clemency consists of either a pardon or commutation of your sentence and that’s when you are asking that the sentence be changed. A pardon is asking that the conviction itself be changed,” Chambliss explained. “In the last three years, approximately 3,100 clemency petitions have been heard and about 10% of those have been granted.”
And the process to obtain clemency can be onerous and unpredictable, Chambliss says.
“It’s challenging. If you consider the numbers of who’s in prison, approximately 71,000 in Illinois, about 41,000 in state prisons of that population. About 10,000 people are serving sentences that are excess of 20 years and 64% of the population are folks who are Black,” she said. “Once you have exhausted your appeals and you have been denied, post-conviction relief clemency is really one of the remaining mechanisms for meaningful review. But it is a long process. There is a wait.”
Attorney Ina Silvergleid works with people facing obstacles due to criminal records in her practice, A Bridge Forward. She said for people like rapper King Moosa, who gained clemency for a murder conviction that happened when he was a young teenager, the clemency doesn’t necessarily clear his record.
“Normally, it’s a three year waiting period from when he gets off of mandatory supervised release, which oftentimes people refer to as parole. If he did some education while he was serving his sentence and he has some sort of certificate of completion, then he would be able to petition to seal that record as soon as he gets off,” Silvergleid said. “When we talk to people who just got out of prison, you know, we can’t always do much for them, not right away.”
Silvergleid said she would like to see more educational opportunities in prisons.
“We used to have more educational opportunities and then we started cutting that funding and there’s a lot of people sitting in prison who we know are going to come out at some time and they’re sitting around doing nothing,” she said. “And many of them would like to learn a skill or a trade or get a degree and they would be much more successful when they get out if they have those things. If they don’t have a skill that’s marketable, they need to find one because there aren’t enough janitorial positions to hire everyone who thinks that that’s the only job they can find.”