BLOOMINGTON — A new state law that makes it easier for low-level felony offenders to have their records sealed could stem the potential problems many people face after acquiring a criminal record.
As of Wednesday, people convicted of certain Class 3 and Class 4 felonies can file a petition with their circuit clerk’s office asking a judge to seal records of their convictions.
Previously, the law required a request to be filed and processed by the Illinois Prison Review Board.
Offenses eligible for sealing include deceptive practices, theft, forgery and possession of burglary tools. Convictions for Class 3 felony drug offenses involving possession of marijuana and other narcotics also qualify.
In November alone, 72 felony convictions were recorded in McLean County, including 13 Class 3 and 35 Class 4 offenses.
McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers said he supports the measure as long as public safety issues are considered in the decision to close records to the public. If those concerns are satisfied “then it becomes a question of whether our society is better served by the person having a conviction or not,” said Chambers, who recently finished his first year as state’s attorney.
Young adults who learn their lesson and have a clean record after a felony conviction deserve a chance to start over, he said.
Public Defender Kim Campbell agreed, saying felonies can have “a negative ripple effect that can last a lifetime.”
“People will be prohibited from having many different types of careers, job opportunities and getting financial aid for school,” said Campbell, whose office represented about 1,200 indigent clients charged with felonies in 2013.
Defense lawyer Jeff Brown has a favorable view of the ability to apply for the closure at the local courthouse.
“Many of my clients don’t even have cars. Any law that makes it easier for the person to take advantage of this option is beneficial,” said Brown.
Convictions that may not be sealed include those involving sex offenses, violence including domestic violence, guns and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Under the law, a person must wait five years from the end of any sentence, or five years from the last arrest before filling a petition. Mandated drug programs also must be completed before a person qualifies.
The program to seal records differs from an expungement program available for misdemeanor convictions and some felonies where a conviction is not entered into the public record if the person completes special probation requirements.
The number of felonies filed in McLean County took a significant jump, up about 24 percent in 2013 — going from 1,367 cases filed in 2012 to a projected 1,728 in the year just ended.
Chambers attributed much of the increase to a shift in policy to upgrade misdemeanor citations for driving on a revoked or suspended license to a felony in certain cases.
An officer who issues the ticket may be unaware the driver has an extensive history of driving without a valid license and if prosecutors learn of that record later, the initial charge will be upgraded to a felony, said Chambers.
A new process for screening cases when received by the office also added to the number of cases filed, he said.