Johnny King, 47, has been unable to resume working as an electrician due to his conviction for drug possession. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

When Algie Crivens III was released from prison in 1999, he thought his nearly decade-long nightmare had ended. After he was convicted of a 1989 murder, a judge sentenced Crivens to 20 years in prison. But, in 1999, a federal court ruled Cook County prosecutors had withheld evidence in his 1992 trial; Crivens was retried in 2000 and found not guilty. Former Gov. George H. Ryan later pardoned him.

Crivens had expected to get a head start on others released from prison—roughly 30,000 each year in Illinois. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Roosevelt University while behind bars and thought he would face the world with a clean record.

But Crivens’ life was sabotaged by his prison past.

“I could not get a job at McDonald’s because, every time someone ran my social security number, it would say I had a felony,” said Crivens, now 33. He would often explain to potential employers that the felony was the result of a wrongful conviction, to no avail.

After hearing his story, an interviewer at United Parcel Service agreed to hire Crivens for an entry-level job, but he was later told the deal was off because a report had labeled him a felon.

“If they see it, they believe it,” he said.

Crivens heard about a way he could clear his record, or expunge it, from state Rep. Connie Howard, a South Side Democrat. For years, the state has allowed people without convictions to do this, but the process was lengthy and expensive. During the year it took Crivens to clear his record, he survived on a $6-an-hour cleaning job secured for him by a close family friend.

Today, Crivens works for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, evaluating applicants for unemployment insurance. “It’s like playing judge,” he said, appreciating the irony.

Since 1999, a subtle shift in the state’s political landscape has occurred, with support rising for measures like easing expungement rules. The voices in favor of such legislation were once confined to black and Latino communities, mostly on the South and West sides of Chicago, where lawmakers were taken aback by the large numbers of people having trouble finding work because of old arrest records.

But white politicians have also begun to agree that traditional “tough on crime” approaches have filled prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, many of them black or Latino, and, even after their release, the stigma of a criminal record shuts many out of employment. And activists say the fight for expungement legislation has helped create a grassroots coalition for even broader criminal justice reform.

Last year, for instance, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a package of bills that require Illinois courts to automatically expunge the records of those found innocent of a crime.

Workers could also stop potential employers from discovering misdemeanors on their records, as long as they had stayed clean for three to four years.

This year, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that will allow ex-offenders with minor drug or prostitution convictions to seal their records but not expunge them. Such people will then be able to present clean backgrounds to employers, but law enforcement agencies will still have access to their full records.

The successes come after black lawmakers spent years responding to complaints from thousands of ex-offenders who said they needed to expunge their records to start over. Bills were periodically introduced in the General Assembly, but it took years, and many compromises, before enough white politicians, especially Republicans and conservative Democrats, signed on.

Howard proposed a series of reforms in 2001 that would have allowed many to clear their records.

“Too many [ex-offenders] were coming back and not able to support their families, standing on the street corner and doing no good for their communities,” she said.

But the proposals were not even allowed to come up for a full vote. “It was just an issue in the black community, people said, for the most part,” Howard said. Many Republicans and downstate politicians said they felt the reforms were too sweeping and pointed to the strong opposition from business groups and law enforcement.

When Howard and other black legislators came back to Springfield in early 2003 with a similar set of bills, they had a Democratic governor and party majorities in the General Assembly. Most of their proposals passed after garnering wide support among many Republicans and conservative downstate politicians.

Even though you see “a flurry of activity” on expungement issue across the country, these reforms “place Illinois at the forefront on these issues,” said Debbie Mukamal, the director of the New York-based National H.I.R.E. Network, an information clearinghouse for groups that help ex-offenders get jobs.

“There certainly has been a shift,” said state Sen. John Cullerton, a North Side Democrat. Cullerton cautioned, however, that any other criminal justice reforms would likely be modest.

But advocates aren’t likely to stop pushing for changes. Patricia Watkins, executive director of the Target Area Development Corp., an economic development group in the South Side’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, said advocates who first joined together to fight for expungement legislation are preparing to battle for state policies that favor drug treatment instead of prison.

“We’re there for the long haul,” she said.

Supporters of legislation to help ex-offenders were once almost exclusively black or Latino, but state Sen. John Cullerton has become a primary sponsor. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

The struggle of ex-offenders to rejoin the working world was on few radar screens in 1999. But a job fair held at Howard’s office that year caused the first blip.

Howard invited corporations such as American Airlines and Walgreens to send representatives, and hundreds of residents from the area surrounding Howard’s predominantly African American district attended.

But two or three months later, when checking their files, Howard’s staff discovered that everyone who had a record, no matter how minor, was left unemployed.

“I was naí¯ve,” Howard recently admitted. “I thought if you paid your debt to society you started with a clean slate.”

In February 2000, she proposed a bill that would allow people convicted of misdemeanors to have their records automatically expunged if they stayed out of trouble for two years. Records of minor felonies would have been cleared after three problem-free years.

The attempt fell flat. Except among a few black legislators from Chicago, she found no support. “[Most] would say, ‘I can’t do this. My district will not accept it.'”

A year later, Howard introduced seven bills that again called for the automatic expungement of minor offenses, but specifically excluded DUIs and sex offenses.

Most of the measures never came up for a vote. One bill meant to address the plight of people like Crivens finally garnered Republican co-sponsors and passed the House almost unanimously. But the bill was never allowed up for a vote in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.

The importance of the measures to black Chicagoans soon became even more apparent.

In November 2001, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis held what his office billed as an “Expungement Summit” in the West Side’s Garfield Park neighborhood. The Cabrini-Green Legal Aid Clinic brought lawyers to speak about the issue. Organizers were shocked at the response.

“People started lining up at 5 a.m.,” said Tumia Romero, Davis’ director of public policy and programs. More than 3,000 people dropped by that day, looking for information.

The Cabrini clinic has since trained a cadre of lawyers to handle expungements at Davis’ now-annual summits, said Christine Farrell, the clinic’s director of criminal records.

She and many others point to that first day, and the subsequent expungement summits, as instrumental in capturing the attention of state legislators.

Roughly 30,000 inmates are released and put on parole from Illinois prisons each year, said Sharron D. Matthews, the director of advocacy and public policy at the Safer Foundation, which has worked for 30 years to find ex-offenders jobs.

In 2001, 44 percent of inmates released from prison in 1998 returned back. By 2003, the percentage had increased to 54, state corrections data show. “Once people realized the numbers involved, the expungement [movement] slowly but surely stayed on the map and grew,” Matthews said.

The souring of the economy further dimmed prospects for jobseekers with criminal records, she believes.

“If something does not happen, they will end up right back in jail after committing crimes to pay the rent,” said Johnny King, 47, who was convicted in 1999 for drug possession.

“I went down to Cabrini-Green to buy a dime bag of crack,” King said. Although he was initially sentenced to probation, King continued using drugs. After a positive drug test, he said, a judge sent him to prison for 61 days.

“I had money, and I thought nothing could stop me,” King said. His father, an electrician, had taught him the trade, and, at the time he began using, King was working for Schaumburg-based Motorola.

Algie Crivens III was wrongly convicted of murder and later declared not guilty, but still found it difficult to get a job. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Around the time of his arrest, King had begun to think about seeking help for his addiction. “I don’t know if getting caught helped me, or if it stopped me from getting treatment,” King said.

“Most of the people I saw [in prison] were in there for drugs,” King added. “They seemed like guys who got caught up in a situation just like I did.”

King said he was helped by a 30-day drug treatment program, but he also credits “God for taking the taste [for drugs] away from me.”

He wants to get married and possibly raise a family, but right now he doesn’t have the money. Currently, King works as an outreach worker for CeaseFire, a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to reduce gang violence. He applied for an electrician position with the Chicago Transportation Authority last year, and was told by the agency that he’d be a strong candidate if the 1999 bust hadn’t been on his record.

“I want a second chance to work in my field,” he said. “I made a mistake and got involved in drugs, but it shouldn’t ruin my life.”

In the aftermath of Howard’s first attempt at reform, several Chicago community groups formed the Developing Justice Coalition; two dozen organizations, including suburban groups, would eventually become members.

“The issue just began to assert itself,” said John Bouman, director of advocacy for the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, a coalition member. Groups that provide social services, such as Catholic Charities, had begun to alert Bouman that they were seeing a flood of ex-offenders, he said.

But he did not expect it would be easy to build support in Springfield. “In 15 minutes, I can make a convincing explanation as to why [Howard’s legislation] is important,” he said. “But legislators know that, in less than 15 seconds, an opponent can make the charge that support for expungement makes them ‘soft on crime.'”

For years, state legislators “have put an emphasis on incarceration and getting tough with criminals,” said state Sen. Denny Jacobs, a Democrat who has represented his western Illinois district since 1986. Such attitudes were not confined to Republicans, with Democrats in downstate and swing districts particularly vulnerable to soft-on-crime challenges, said Jacobs, a longtime supporter of the expungement legislation.

But, at the same time, many in Chicago’s business community saw a downside to laws adopted in the 1980s and 1990s that increased sentences for petty drug offenses. As the number of prisoners soared, costs to maintain the prisons increased from $377 million in 1980 to $1.3 billion in 2000, according to the Chicago Urban League.

“The way we’re spending our dollars doesn’t have people coming out ready for work,” said Paula Wolff, a senior executive with Metropolis 2020, a business group dedicated to promoting public policy cooperation among area governments. “If you’re going to spend money on corrections, you should get something from it.”

Many suburban and downstate lawmakers began to agree.

“We’re coming to realize that, if what we’re trying to reduce is recidivism, we need to focus on employment,” said state Rep. Patricia Reid Lindner, a Republican from west suburban Sugar Grove.

Some lawmakers, she said, initially thought expungement was merely a way to let criminals off the hook.

Bouman and other activists impressed on legislators that this was not just about former prisoners, but also the far greater number who could not clear off even minor arrests from otherwise clean records.

State Rep. Mark Beaubien of Barrington Hills, an affluent, predominantly white northwest suburb, was Howard’s first Republican supporter, becoming a co-sponsor of the 2001 bill to help the innocent to expunge their records.

Beaubien had personal experience with the issue: He had helped a relative through the expungement process, but he “would never do it again; it took a year,” he said. “I piggyback on what Connie does, because I believe that people who make small mistakes deserve second chances.”

“Everyone is for law and order until it’s their kid,” said Jacobs. He gets two or three calls a year from those looking for help in getting an expungement. “Usually, it’s a parent who says my kid screwed up when he was 18; many times it’s drugs. If they had everyone on record who tried drugs, it would be 90 percent of the population.”

Jacobs, who is white, added that most of the people who want his assistance clearing their records are white and affluent. “I have never had a minority ask me for help on an expungement.”

State Rep. Connie Howard stands outside her South Side district office. She has helped lead what once was a lonely fight to reduce the number of released inmates who return to prison. (Photo by Walter S. Mitchell III)

Some of the measures drafted and introduced in early 2003 passed quickly. Those judged innocent got the right to have their records automatically expunged; only two senators voted against that bill. And, to open previously restricted jobs, legislators gave nonviolent ex-offenders the right, after a one- to three-year grace period, to pursue more than a dozen occupations that require state licenses.

But the main goal remained elusive.

Howard’s bill to allow ex-offenders to expunge minor felonies from their records morphed into a 2003 law that allowed the records of nonviolent misdemeanors to be sealed.

“What was missing was a real grassroots effort,” said the Target development company’s Watkins. In mid-2003, she became the chief organizer of the Developing Justice Coalition. The coalition has added groups such as the Protestants for the Common Good, a statewide organization that works with more than 200 churches, many predominantly white.

As a package, the bills passed in spring 2003 left many disappointed. “By the time we got there, the bills had been so watered down,” said Watkins. She helped to prepare yet another bill, introduced in earlier this year, to allow ex-offenders to expunge nonviolent felonies.

“And then our adversary appeared,” said Watkins.

Lobbyists from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, with its thousands of businesses from Wal-Mart to mom-and-pop stores, opposed the bill. Cullerton, who co-chairs the committee that initially hears such bills, regarded that as its death knell.

“You don’t want a three-time thief in charge of the cash register at McDonald’s,” said state Rep. Chapin Rose, a Republican from downstate Mahomet.

Undaunted, Watkins said the coalition regularly brought busloads of people to Springfield for the committee hearings and votes. Church members from Protestants for the Common Good, including many from downstate, she said, “wrote individual, personal letters to their legislators, and that’s powerful.”

In the run-up to the new bill’s introduction in February, an aide to Cook County State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine approached Howard, who sponsored the bill in the House, and said Devine wanted to end law enforcement’s long-standing opposition. Shocked, Howard said she was eager to discuss the bill. They agreed to a compromise that changed the bill from allowing someone to expunge a minor felony to letting them have it sealed, preserving law enforcement agencies’ right to look at anyone’s full history.

In late January, hundreds of people from the coalition streamed into the auditorium in the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago to hear testimony from ex-offenders at a hearing chaired by Cullerton and Howard. “I was impressed by their intensity and sincerity,” said Cullerton.

But business opposition seemed implacable.

Watkins said the retailers’ association wouldn’t return calls until the coalition sent a letter to the president of Jewel Food Stores, an association member. Over three following weeks of negotiations, the coalition agreed to limit the crimes covered to prostitution and small-time drug possession.

At a March Senate committee hearing, nearly 30 people from the coalition, representing churches, community groups and social service agencies, including some ex-offenders, testified for what had become Senate Bill 3007. Reaching across racial and regional lines became part of their strategy.

“When hearings were held, we brought people to testify who were white,” said Howard. When it was understood that the people who’d benefit “are not all of dark complexion, legislators were more willing to listen.”

“I don’t want to exaggerate its importance, but there have been faces put on this problem from all different racial and ethnic groups,” said Cullerton, who is white.

But the most important appearance, even though he did not testify, might have been Rob Karr’s, a lobbyist for the retailers’ association. He gave the senators a note letting them know the retailers might not support the bill, but they did not oppose it, either.

“What changed was that the advocate groups were willing to scale back what they were asking for,” said Karr.

The bill squeaked through the Senate on March 26 with a 30-24 vote, with support from one Republican, Sen. Kirk Dillard, of west suburban Hinsdale. In the House, however, many Republicans still felt the proposal was too sweeping.

Rose, the House member from downstate Mahomet, pointed out that, even after the 2002 elections brought more Democrats to Springfield, a majority of the Criminal Law committee, which has to approve any such legislation before a full vote, were either Republicans or somewhat more conservative Democrats.

That group is reluctant to support “anything that shows leniency or is soft on crime,” Beaubien said.

A former assistant state’s attorney, Rose said he and many Republican colleagues would not support Senate Bill 3007 until it mandated drug tests for people applying to get their records sealed. And another amendment required that applicants wait four years.

“If we’re going to grant you a second chance, you better have cleaned up your act,” he said. Without these amendments, he added, the bill “would still be dead in the water.”

With them, it sailed through 72-39 on May 27. Twenty-two Republicans, including Rose and Lindner, supported the bill, easily offsetting the 13 Democrats, mostly from more conservative swing districts, who voted against it. It’s an election year, Cullerton said, and he “suspects everybody voted safe.”

Watkins said the coalition brought more than 600 people to the capitol on November 9 to pressure the Senate to approve the House version of the bill, which it did the next day by a vote of 33-23, clearing the way for Gov. Blagojevich to sign the measure into law.

Lindner and other Republicans said additional reforms would have to clear a high bar. “This bill has been really negotiated,” she said.

Crivens recognizes compromise was necessary, but the four-year wait concerns him. He points out that most people leave prison with slim opportunities and no education. “Some of them say, ‘I don’t have that long—I need a job today.’ If they don’t have a strong family background, they’ll fall back.”

“I don’t know if my 117 colleagues would have said OK if we had not put all the amendments in,” Howard said. But she’s also worried the wait might be too long, and that too many lawmakers “don’t care that recidivism increases if people aren’t getting some type of hope.”

But Rose and other Republicans say they will not budge. “I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, but I have an obligation to protect people who don’t commit crimes and deal drugs,” Rose said, adding that he does not want to allow the possibility that an addict could get a construction job “and tweak out while handling a power saw.”

King hopes politicians will look into allowing perpetrators of other victimless crimes to clear their records.

But lawmakers say advocates should proceed slowly. “The General Assembly would be wise to see how this one works before they jump on something else,” Lindner said.

Watkins said the struggle begun at Howard’s 1999 job fair has gone as far as it could, at least for now. She advises others to wait until 2006, when the state should complete a study of the new law’s effect on recidivism, to see if a bigger push is needed.

In the meantime, the state recently opened the Sheridan Correctional Center, which officials hope will reduce recidivism by providing drug treatment to as many as 1,300 inmates. But Watkins’ coalition will set its sights on an even bigger prize: reforming sentencing laws so low-level drug offenders like King can get drug treatment and completely avoid the stigma of prison.

But she said it will take months of discussion to ensure the coalition has a common platform. And she acknowledges that overcoming conservative resistance will require even broader support, so she hopes to enlist judges, bar associations, universities, philanthropists and more large downstate churches.

Rose agrees that many Illinois Republicans no longer have a “knee-jerk reaction of ‘lock-’em-up,'” leaving them open to new proposals to bring drug treatment into existing prisons. But he said Watkins’ goal of restructuring sentencing laws is out.

U.S. Rep. Davis says he’s undeterred. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything but push ahead,” Davis said, promising to work for sentencing reform. “We see daylight.”

Efren Arcos helped research this article.