As part of their Social Work in Action class, a group of Illinois Wesleyan University students began interviewing people who have been arrested in McLean County.
Many of the people they spoke with have records for minor, non-violent crimes. They didn't know those criminal records can be either expunged or sealed.
The students decided to help.
The result is Fresh Start -- a free workshop the students organized to provide information on how to expunge or seal a criminal record.
The workshop will take place Thursday at United Way headquarters on Grove Street in Bloomington from 1 to 6 p.m. also on hand to help will be representatives from the YWCA of McLean County, which works with female ex-offenders, and Prairie State Legal Services, a local legal aid agency.
"Social Work in Action is about empowering people and advocating for people," said Emily Barr, who teaches the class at IWU.
"The class did some research and we talked about what is a need in the community and we settled on people who have been involved in the criminal justice system and what limits that puts on their lives," she said.
A criminal record can be an obstacle to finding employment, securing loans, renting housing and obtaining some forms of government assistance. A charge will remain on a person's public record even if the charge eventually is dropped or dismissed.
Jonathan Krasin, a student in the class, said he wasn't sure about the project at the start. "Then we started going out canvassing people and talking to them, and saw how it affected them. People were having a hard time getting jobs, they were worried about family members, some were being hassled at airports," Krasin said.
Krasin said he was struck in particular by the case of woman who had been convicted of retail theft for stealing under $30-worth of grocery items. As a result of her record, she lost the opportunity to work at a local hotel.
"A criminal record disrupts a person's life, and in many cases it was for a minor mistake they made in the past," Krasin said.
Those who are convicted of a crime, as opposed to simply being charged or ultimately acquitted, cannot get a record expunged. However, a conviction record can be sealed, which takes it out of public view, said Mike Varchetto, another member of the class.
Certain crimes, however, aren't eligible, including murder, sexual assault and abuse, driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and certain high level property crimes and violent crimes. Most minor and non-violent crimes are.
Jobs in banking and those that require licenses are off limits to people with criminal convictions.
Susan Whiting, another student, said no matter how minor the offense or how long ago it took place, "There are some employers who don't want anyone who has a criminal record."
The McLean County State's Attorney's office handles about 4,500 cases each year and of those about half involve crimes whose records can be expunged or sealed, Barr said.
Many former defendants don't realize their records can be altered, said Rylee Fishel, another of the student who helped organize Thursday's workshop.
It can take as long as eight months to get a record expunged or sealed. A Circuit Court judge must sign off on the decision.
"It is not necessarily hard process. The hardest part is just starting it," Krasin said.
Barr said working on the project proved to be an eye-opening experience for her students.
The research they did showed, "The criminal justice system is heavily biased against people who don't have means. If you are rich, you probably have the means to get your record expunged," Barr said.
"Everyone in the class feels they are actually doing something to help people," she added.
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