Last year, I wrote a highly critical opinion piece for the Sun-Times about Gov. Bruce Rauner after learning that he had denied clemency for a client of mine.
Given Rauner’s extreme reluctance to grant clemency to ex-offenders, even to those like my client who had gone on to live honest and productive lives for many years, I questioned why anybody would bother to file the petition.
Though I couldn’t know it at the time, however, that same governor soon would lay the groundwork for my client to earn a second chance. In August 2017, Rauner signed House Bill 2373 into law. This legislation resulted in a significant expansion of the kinds of criminal records a judge can decide to seal from public view.
Last month, as a result of that law, a judge granted my client’s petition to seal his record, closing the book on my client’s addiction-fueled criminal conduct, which began when he was 17 and ended when he was 31.
Today, he is 51.
My client’s story, which he has given me permission to tell as long as I don’t use his real name, reminds us that people who make bad decisions as teens and young adults still can grow into law-abiding, productive members of society. If we don’t start believing in our human capacity to change — to learn from our mistakes — we will fail to see the potential in many of our fellow, returning citizens.
My client, Larry, grew up in Chicago with an alcoholic father. His mother managed apartment buildings. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. Larry himself struggled in school, and was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fifth grade. Once assigned to special ed classes, he was teased and bullied relentlessly.
The summer before Larry entered high school, he started drinking beer. By his freshman year, he was smoking weed and using cocaine. He dropped out of school after his sophomore year. A year later, he was arrested for the first time.
He was charged with felony burglary and sentenced to probation.
In no time at all, Larry had gone from high school dropout to convicted felon. His future did not bode well. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of the men and women in United States prisons did not graduate from high school.
Larry’s next arrest, for residential burglary, occurred while he was still on probation. He was sentenced to prison – the first of two prison stints he would serve before turning 20. Larry’s preferred choice of crime? Breaking into cars, though he wasn’t particularly good at it. He was usually drunk or high when arrested.
In 1990, Larry picked up his fourth — and final — felony conviction. He was spared prison, though, sentenced instead to an intensive, in-patient drug treatment.
Larry struggled with his sobriety for another 10 years. But a health scare in 2000 finally convinced him to stop drinking and drugging.
Today, Larry takes his sobriety seriously. He has been sober for nearly 18 years. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week.
A couple of years ago, he met his wife at an AA meeting. With her encouragement and support, he started meeting with a literacy tutor. At the time, his reading comprehension was that of a second grader. Today, he can read at a fifth-grade level.
So there you have it: Larry is sober. He can read a bit better. And he always manages to work for a living, despite his significant educational deficits. The jobs he has found, such as valet parking attendant, don’t pay well, but they are honorable and he has gotten by.
I met Larry and his wife in 2015 and filed his clemency petition in 2016. While the petition was pending, Larry was selected to be a participant in the CTA’s Second Chance Program, cleaning buses and rail cars. Recently, he completed his second full year in the program.
Earlier this year, shortly before a judge granted his petition to seal his criminal record — made possible by the law Rauner signed — Larry learned that his name has been added to the CTA’s hire list.
Over the years, Larry has learned not to give up on himself. And today, he says at age 51, he feels like a “different man.”
He’s a man of few words, but on the day after the judge granted his petition, he called me to say thanks.
How did he feel?
“Really, really good,” Larry said with a chuckle. “Like I never got in trouble before, though I know I did.”
Ina R. Silvergleid is a Chicago attorney and owner of A Bridge Forward LLC. She specializes in helping people with a criminal background eliminate barriers to employment, professional licensing and housing.
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