On Thursday, a major victory in Illinois criminal justice reform was achieved when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a series of criminal justice bills giving offenders a fresh start entering society.

Taking place at Safer Foundation located in the North Lawndale community, several lawmakers were on hand who advocated and co-sponsored Senate Bill 1688 (SB 1688), Senate Bill 1781 (SB 1781), House Bill 2373 (HB 2373), House Bill 698 (HB 698), House Bill 514 (HB 514) and House Bill 3874 (HB 3817). Speakers included members of the legislative Black Caucus; State Representatives LaShawn Ford ( 8th District) and Camille Lilly (78th District along with State Senators Kwame Raoul (13th District), Jacqueline Collins (16th District) and Justin Slaughter (26th District).

A long-time advocate of supporting ex-offenders in providing legal guidance and resources through her annual Expungement Summit, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown was on hand for the special monumental announcement.

“As I was standing there, I was so elated to hear all the state reps and state senators and then the governor to get up there and talk about giving people a second chance and not punishing them for the reset of their lives. My expungement summit has gone on for 12 years. I took up the banner through  Congressman Danny Davis and State Rep. Howard,” she said.  “We were talking about this when it wasn’t even popular to talk about. To come to this point today, it means to me that people are finally getting it. They are finally changing their hearts. They understand the societal cause of giving people who second chance. If you don’t help people to take care of themselves, legally–they are going to take care of it one way or another.”

One of the bills signed, HB 3817 creates the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act. Under current Illinois law, only three in 1,000 juvenile arrests are expunged. According to the governor’s office, this law would allow for a quicker and easier process for young people to have their records erased, would reduce the unlawful sharing of juvenile records. This Act would benefit young people who are burdened by juvenile arrest records when they seek employment and housing.

Willie “J.R.” Fleming could not agree more on the importance of giving offenders a second chance which has led many faced with prejudicial blockades preventing many from employment or reduced to certain manual labor.

As an ex-offender, Fleming can relate to the experience of finding a better way to combat those fears firsthand. As the Executive Director for the Anti-Eviction Campaign, he stood proudly as a shining example of  change, opportunity and growth.

“As a single father, three-time convicted felon–every door you try to enter is shut. You look at the job application process, housing and acquiring a bank account. You see that one box with the question, “Are you a convicted felon?” You don’t even finish the application, you just walk away so to have that kind of hope taken from you before you apply–it’s detrimental. That’s why today’s signing remove that doubt. People can have that security knowing they can’t find out what has occurred in the past to take away that opportunity,” Fleming explain.

For those who’ve been convicted of a non-violent, non-sexual crime–House Bill 2373 amends the Criminal Identification Act. This allows the court to seal the records of those who have been arrested or charged and received an order of supervision.

The bi-partisan efforts on both sides of the aisle gave Gov. Rauner a boost needed to reflect from the backlash ignited from a cartoon released a few days ago by the GOP supported Illinois Policy Institute (IPI). The cartoon sparked a wave of statements calling it racist and insensitive. On the heels of criticism by Democratic leaders on the governor’s amended veto blocking additional school funding–this was another can of fuel on the bonfire of the ‘war of words’ of state taxpayer’s dollars going more towards CPS schools.

When asked by the media if a personal apology for the offensive cartoon be offered by the governor, Rauner responded, “Absolutely not because I do not endorse any form of racism.”

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