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People can change. Just ask Bruce Zywiec.
The many chapters of his career have given him a perspective on criminal justice and rehabilitation that few can have.
Zywiec started his career as a juvenile probation officer. He then spent 25 years with the Illinois State Police, making it all the way to captain of investigations. He retired in 2007.
But instead of riding in the sunset, he then rode down to Southern Illinois University to start law school—at the age of 51.
"I wasn't the oldest in my class, I'm happy to say. There were about three of us in our 50s. We were the AARP Club," he joked.
After SIU he joined the McLean County state’s attorney’s office, starting with misdemeanors and traffic cases before moving to child abuse and neglect cases.
“I think that most people who go into the state’s attorney’s office are usually newer lawyers,” Zywiec said, “and I think they’re interested in pursuing felonies and getting exciting cases. I didn’t like being on call—I’d been on call my entire life with the state police. At my advanced age, I needed my sleep so I went into a field I really knew nothing about.”
As a police officer, he was at the crime scenes; he saw the men and women who would later be defendants in court at their lowest moment and interacted with them as they were intoxicated or angry. He also saw the harm done to the victim, and he'd get upset when a judge would hand down a light sentence.
When he became an attorney, he started to see things differently.
“(The judge is) hearing both sides of the story,” Zywiec said. “The defendant comes to court dressed very well, is sober, and has his family with him. The victim doesn’t look as beat up as they did when you first arrived at the scene. After you’ve been in the courtroom for a while you have more of a respect and appreciation for what judges have to do.”
Helping Those In Need
After six years with the state’s attorney’s office, Zywiec retired again in 2016. But he still had more in the tank.
He started volunteering at Prairie State Legal Services in Bloomington, which provides legal help to low-income people. He thought he could maybe help with wills. Instead, he was asked to help with Prairie State's relatively new expungement and sealing program.
"You can imagine somebody (like me) who spent their entire life giving people criminal histories, that didn't sound like the most appealing thing. So I reluctantly said yes, and I'm glad I did. It gave me a whole new view," Zywiec said.
A whole new view, and yet another perspective for Zywiec.
“The unfortunate thing is once you get a record, your chances of getting employment drop drastically,” Zywiec said. “The problem is even if a person gets in trouble in his late teens, early 20s, and they get a felony conviction, in their 40s those things still follow them around. It diminishes their ability to find gainful employment.”
Prairie State Managing Attorney Adrian Barr said Zywiec has since helped "dozens of deserving people expunge or seal old criminal records."
"He is an all around great guy, and we are lucky to have him in this community," Barr said.
Zywiec finds the work satisfying.
“One of my favorite clients had a criminal history that took up the whole screen. When I first looked at that I thought, 'Oh lord, what am I doing here?' But what I didn’t look at—and what I think most employers probably wouldn’t look at—is all the dates.”
It was all from 20 years ago. When Zywiec met her, she turned out to be very pleasant.
“She told me, 'When you quit doing drugs, you don’t seem to be arrested anymore,'" Zywiec said.
“People can change,” Zywiec added. “There are bad people that society needs protection from, but not everybody that does something wrong is a bad person or beyond redemption.”
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