To fight crime, Chicago tries wiping away arrests
CHICAGO — 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 gang-dominated streets.
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 because 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, about 16,000 juvenile arrests would have been eligible for expungement. Of those, 661 people applied. All but one succeeded in clearing their records.
That means tens of thousands 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 last spring and signed on Saturday by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Employers can still ask about criminal history in the job-application process.
To gain support from law enforcement agencies, the sponsors had to scale back the measure. 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 apply to have their record expunged.