A couple proposals before the state Legislature would cut some slack for those who run afoul of the law early in life and those who already have spent time in prison and are heading toward senior citizen status.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, a Tinley Park Democrat who chairs the Senate’s criminal law committee, said he will take up a plan this week that was shepherded through the House by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, to broaden the expungement of nonviolent juvenile records, bringing Illinois up to par with American Bar Association guidelines.
Changes were recommended last year by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission because Illinois hasn’t kept up with destroying juvenile records.
In the 10-year span from 2004 to 2014, an overwhelming majority — 87 percent — of Illinois counties averaged less than one expungement of a juvenile record per year.
If you’re a juvenile child molester, arsonist, murderer or violent offender, Hastings said, your criminal record will remain on the books, but if you got into trouble for drinking or drugs or petty theft as a minor, your interaction with the law should be sealed and can be automatically erased after a certain period of time.
But that hasn’t been happening in Illinois. Half of Illinois counties reported not having erased a juvenile record in the past decade. Illinois’ standards for expungement are among the toughest nationwide, with long waiting periods and high minimum age limits. Some counties charge high fees to erase juvenile arrests, while a study found those who are obligated to notify people when their juvenile records could be deleted haven’t been doing it.
Hastings said he has worked to address the concerns of the Illinois State Police and others concerned about destroying too much information. For instance, HB3817 states that if law enforcement certifies some information is needed for a pending felony investigation, that information and the juvenile’s identity can be kept for a year or until the probe ends, whichever happens first.
“I know people who’ve had this problem and I’m sure you do, too; they just don’t tell you,” Hastings said. “Some kids can’t get into college or can’t get a job because these things are following them around for life.”
If HB3817 were to become law, local ordinance cases involving minors also could be kept from the public and a $1,000 fine could be imposed for wrongfully sharing information about minors. Records would be erased two years after a case closes if there are no other delinquency findings or other alleged violations in those two years.
“Just because you made a mistake when you were 16,” Hastings said, “doesn’t mean it should follow you when you’re 25. A lot of us make mistakes and we change as we get older.”
He said he was confident the legislation will pass and move on to the governor’s office.
On the other end of the life spectrum, Nekritz has another bill that would allow for the early, supervised release of older prisoners.
HB3816 would allow for prisoners aged 55 and older and who have been in prison continuously for at least 20 years to seek supervised release. Terminally ill prisoners could be moved to health care facilities. The prisoners’ victims and their families also would be allowed to weigh in on the application for release.
Those seeking release would need to have arranged a place to live and show financial support. Finding that financial support could be a tremendous challenge. The Associated Press recently reported that a survey of older, former prisoners found they had little financial stability and were less likely to have income from Social Security or a pension. Yet, the number of inmates nationwide who are 55 and older nearly has quadrupled over the past 20 years, the Associated Press reported, citing data from the National Institute of Corrections.
Older prisoners can cost up to three times more to house, feed and keep healthy than younger ones and Nekritz sees her proposal as one way to save taxpayers money.
It won’t be saving much any time soon. While Hastings predicts passage of the plan to help juvenile offenders, word in Springfield is that a majority of lawmakers don’t seem ready to give older, long-term inmates a shot at living their twilight years out in the sunshine.