IL Latino News covers the social determinants of health and democracy. Ensuring that the public has accurate information about and fair access to the judicial system is a staple for a healthy democratic society.
Sunlight poured into a Corliss High School classroom on a Saturday morning, beaming against the backs of black puffer jackets and fur-trimmed coats worn to brave the cold, windy March chills outside. This makeshift waiting room, located in the Pullman neighborhood, was not full of students waiting for the bell to ring, signifying dismissal. In these chairs sat over two dozen community members, adults, hoping to ignite the process of dismissing records that for some, date back decades.
This process of expungement completely removes a non-conviction criminal case from one’s public record and while it does not pardon the crime, an expunged sentence will no longer appear on background checks. Dismissals, acquittals, supervision, and TASC probation are some examples of cases that may be eligible.
While the state implements some protection for employees such as the Employee Background Fairness Act, criminal background checks can hinder access to employment, or housing. A study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 79 percent of formerly incarcerated people reported being denied housing due to a criminal conviction. Because criminal information is documented indefinitely, the effects are long term.
“Sometimes I found myself talking to people that 20 or 30 years later, that [record] is still part of their impediment to getting good housing, getting a good education…” said the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Iris Martinez. “It’s important that this office work with those individuals to make sure that their records are expunged because guess what, they already paid their dues to society.”
Normally expungement requests must be filed in person at the courthouse but this “Clerk in the Community” event aimed to make the process more accessible by collaborating with T.R.E.A.D, an organization that helps low-income families and individuals overcome poverty, and meeting constituents in their neighborhoods.
Martinez became the first Latina elected to this role in November 2020, taking office in December of that year. She said that stepping into this role, she prioritized building trust with the community and saw an opportunity to connect by tapping religious leaders like Reverend Elena Calloway and Father Michael Pfleger.
“Who are more trusting than the individuals like a Reverend Calloway and so many others?”
An assembly line of attorneys from Cabrini Green Legal Aid and the Legal Aid Office of Chicago lined the left side of the room, working pro bono, as they met with people who pre-registered to be seen. One by one, names were called and guests were directed from one side of the room to the next, manila folders in hand. According to the Clerk’s Office, 30 individuals were registered for the process that day.
Carmen Navarro Gercone, Executive Clerk for Court Operations for the Clerk of the Circuit Court for Cook County explained that while participants of the petition drive still had additional steps to finalize their expungement, the paperwork filed that day expedited the process.
“We have several members of the clerk’s office here today who are collecting those petitions, we are stamping those petitions and we will be filing those petitions for them to present them to the State’s Attorney for the next steps,” she explained.
By 11:11 a.m. only two people remained.
“It looks like we’re gonna end early which is very, very exciting,” said Gercone.
By 11:20 a.m. the last name was called. Officials went through their registration list and the classroom cleared out.
“It was important that we really put this together in a way that made sense, and that it was organized, without no chaos, and making sure that the transition would be a very smooth transition, which you could see today was exactly that,” said Clerk Martinez.
The Clerk’s office is hosting a community forum this Saturday, June 17 at St. Sabina Church, 1210 W 78th Pl., as part of an initiative to educate the public on the expungement process.