PEORIA — More than 400 people last year attended a weekend event designed to help them file paperwork to expunge low-level, nonviolent convictions from their records after staying on the right side of the law for several years.
But for about 150 of them, an unanticipated roadblock halted their efforts.
Outstanding fines and court costs — from the cases they were seeking to have expunged, or from other misdemeanors or ordinance violations — needed to be paid off first.
In many cases, people working after such felony convictions don't have the available cash to make those payments, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, who first organized the "expungement summit," said Monday afternoon.
That's why she authored legislation now working its way through the General Assembly that would permit such record-clearing to go forward with the fines still in place to be paid off afterward.
"An individual that qualifies for an expungement (or a sealing of court records) will not be held up if they owe — but they'll still owe," Gordon-Booth said during a news conference at the Peoria chapter of the NAACP.
"When objections (to expungements) are made solely based on the fact that they owe fines and fees, it gives me cause for concern," she said.
Not being able to get their records expunged often means they're ineligible to work in positions like those in the health care field or at other major employers, Gordon-Booth said.
"Most people that go to an expungement summit, they're working. But they realize they're trapped in a cycle of poverty," she said.
"Fines and fees are a very real issue for people of color and in poverty," Gordon-Booth added, later citing work from the Journal Star's yearlong "City of Disparity" series identifying how much more frequently minorities faced criminal convictions in Peoria County.
The goal of the legislation is to remove one barrier that makes it more difficult for people in that situation to improve themselves, others argued at the news conference.
"A felony on someone's record shouldn't be a life sentence," state Sen. Dave Koehler said.
And Sheriff Brian Asbell characterized those seeking such expungements as "people who want to be productive members of society."
But Beth Jensen, the at-large city councilwoman who works for the Public Interest Law Initiative, said prosecutors and the circuit clerk's office could also voluntarily waive the fees by offering, in essence, an amnesty period — and could also decide not to object to unpaid fees during the expungement process. She challenged State's Attorney Jerry Brady and Circuit Clerk Bobby Spears to consider both.
Brady said later that he believes in cases "where a person is financially unable to pay fines and fees that those fines and fees be converted by the court to public service hours."
He's already adopted that policy and made arrangements for that public service to be done with the Peoria Park District, he said.
Some at the news conference were dubious that such an effort would be manageable for people already working multiple jobs to make ends meet, perhaps also as a single parent.
Brady said that to his knowledge so far nobody actively petitioning to convert fines and court costs to public service fit that profile, but that his office could also take into account — as could a court — any such mitigating circumstances.
He also noted that his office had worked with Gordon-Booth on waiving fees for expungement applications.
The legislation is House Bill 5341. It has passed a legislative committee with bipartisan support but still requires votes in both the House and Senate.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255.