ISU Expungement Clinic Helps People With Criminal Records Get A Fresh Start
A pilot program at Illinois State University that helps low-income people get their lives back after a conviction will continue, with the help of university funding and an endowment.
The expungement clinic is a partnership between ISU’s Department of Politics & Government and Prairie State Legal Services’ Bloomington office. ISU legal studies students help prepare documents to have criminal records sealed or removed from a person's record.
Professor Tom McClure launched the program last fall. It was offered to legal studies students as an extra credit opportunity. McClure said the benefit is two-fold: students get hands-on legal experience and low-income individuals get help they likely couldn’t afford otherwise.
"Although, in Illinois, it's illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of arrest records, it happens."
McClure said criminal records can impede a person’s ability to find a job, housing or lending opportunities, noting some studies indicate 90% of prospective employers run criminal background checks.
“Although, in Illinois, it's illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of arrest records, it happens,” McClure said. “By having a sealing or an expungement of the record, unless it's a job that requires a high level of security, it will keep that record from going public. That way, the applicant could be considered for the position. That helps bring people back into society and takes them out of indigency.”
The expungement clinic is a free service for people living in McLean or Livingston counties. McClure said some attorneys charge $750 per expungement—an unmanageable expense for people living in poverty.
Illinois lawmakers mandated automatic record expungements for some cannabis convictions, under the 2020 legalization law. McClure said while the ISU expungement clinic has handled some drug cases, most cases have nothing to do with the new law.
“It could be anything from (shoplifting), all the way up through murder,” McClure said. “We haven't worked on any murder cases, but we have worked on cases involving armed violence.”
ISU legal studies students worked on 30 expungement cases during the first year of the program. Prairie State Legal Services estimates it cut the time its staff spent on the expungement and sealing caseload by 25%.
Student Sarah Feltes said the cases that stood out to her the most involved petty offenses.
"A lot of the time, it could be situations where someone is young. They might not have the full mental capacity yet of adulthood."
“A lot of the time, it could be situations where someone is young. They might not have the full mental capacity yet of adulthood or they were in college and they were at the wrong place, wrong time. They have a charge on their record that carries through, then,” Feltes said. “I think throughout this entire process, helping people get a second chance at life has been the most impactful thing for me.”
Another student, Nadalie Ponce, said in addition to serving the community, having the practice of preparing legal documents put her in a better position to succeed in other roles.
“As a student who wants to go into the legal field, I think it's very interesting to have experience like this,” Ponce said. “Now I'm interning at the Lake County State's Attorney's Office. On Mondays, I'm at the juvenile detention centers, so I see cases that come across my desk that minors want to be expunged. I'm able to know what I'm doing and see the qualifications.”
The expungement clinic will continue for at least the next two years, with funding from the provost’s office. McClure also has donated $100,000 to create an endowment with the Illinois State University Foundation to support the expungement clinic. In order to become fully funded, McClure said the endowment will need to reach $350,000 by August 2025.
McClure said next year, he’ll be working with 35 students to run the expungement clinic, adding the caseload could more than double.