Last academic year, Kelly Larkin received a crash course in the moral complexities of being a lawyer.
The undergraduate student and aspiring family attorney was participating in Illinois State’s new Expungement Clinic and was hesitant to assist a client with a 20-page criminal history in clearing some of his record. He had a lot of misdemeanor traffic convictions and arrests and charges for violent crimes that did not result in convictions.
“The experience made me become more professional. I ended up doing the case because everyone deserves representation, and I don’t know his whole story,” said Larkin, a senior legal studies major and psychology minor. “That definitely helped me realize what the real world is going to be like. I am now learning that people deserve a second chance.”Appears In
That is one of the many lessons legal studies students are gaining in Illinois State University’s Expungement Clinic. Thomas McClure, director of legal studies and professor in the Department of Politics and Government, started the clinic in his litigation courses last year as a way to offer students hands-on legal experience and a civic engagement opportunity. The students assist individuals seeking to expunge and seal their criminal records.
“I think part of being a legal professional is also service to your community. And doing pro bono work is an important component,” McClure said. “So in my view, this is helping to expose students to something that they need to be aware of for the rest of their professional career.”
McClure partners with Adrian Barr, managing attorney of Prairie State Legal Services’ Bloomington Office. The nonprofit offers free legal assistance to low-income clients in 36 counties in Central and Northern Illinois.
Barr’s office began offering expungement and sealing services to clients in 2017. Since then, Prairie State has helped 125 people seal or expunge records in 665 cases in McLean, Livingston, and Woodford Counties.
“This was a project that Prairie State Legal Services took on a few years ago because they saw a need for helping people get back on their feet and get out of poverty,” McClure said. “The reason why a lot of people are stuck in poverty is because their arrest records prevent them from getting decent jobs. If they can’t get the jobs, they’re basically stuck and they’re not able to be mobile.”
Barr said clearing someone’s criminal history can also help them access better housing and boost their confidence. Many of his clients are looking to erase a mistake from their youth, such as charges stemming from shoplifting or a college bar fight. Others, like the client Larkin was assigned, have a much longer rap sheet, sometimes as a consequence of an alcohol or a drug addiction.
“Almost all of our clients feel like they’re defined by this black mark against them, and anyone could look it up before it’s sealed or expunged,” Barr said. “After we help them, they’ve said it feels like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.”
How does it work?
The Expungement Clinic handles two types of civil proceedings: the expungement and sealing of criminal records. The former erases police and court records for arrests that did not result in convictions. The latter hides criminal convictions from most of the public, though all of these records can still be accessed by law enforcement agencies, and the sealed felony convictions can be seen by employers who are required by law to conduct background checks.
There are only a few types of criminal cases in Illinois that cannot be expunged or sealed.
“Illinois has the most progressive expungement and sealing laws in the country. They cover virtually every kind of crime,” McClure said. “There are a few exceptions. Domestic violence, if someone is convicted of that, they can’t give a sealing. If it is a cruelty to animals, there can’t be a sealing of the records. DUI convictions and supervisions cannot be sealed or expunged. For the most part, everything else is potentially eligible. That includes murder.”
An individual who would like to expunge or seal their records must file a request in civil court and notify State Police, the local state’s attorney, and the law enforcement that arrested them.
“The court has absolute discretion in these cases, and it is not unusual for the court to follow the recommendation of the state’s attorney,” Barr said.
In cases in which a client has a lengthy criminal history, Prairie State will file letters of support from a sponsor, a boss, or someone else who can vouch for the person. Barr said the local state’s attorney office has treated his clients fairly and will decide to oppose or support an expungement or a sealing request on a case-by-case basis.
ISU steps up
McClure had been volunteering for Prairie State for years. So when Barr indicated he needed help with expungements and sealings, McClure began thinking how he could get his students involved.
Barr had been referring cases to pro bono lawyers and paralegals from State Farm for the expungements. But when the pandemic struck, those volunteers were no longer able to meet with clients due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. Illinois State’s Expungement Clinic evaded that issue by not requiring students to meet with clients or appear in court.
“ISU students and Tom McClure have given us another avenue to get these people served in a timely manner,” Barr said. “So that’s been awesome. Without it, basically this program would be falling to the wayside during the pandemic because we just don’t have the staff to work on it.”
McClure used a $900 grant from Illinois State’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology to visit a university near Philadelphia to learn about its expungement clinic. He began the pilot program at Illinois State by assigning one case to each student for extra credit in his fall Litigation I course. He repeated that process in his spring Litigation II course.
In each case, the students identify the charge, the relevant law enforcement agency and dates, and disposition of the case in a process called case charting. Then the students prepare three court documents: a request to expunge or seal the records, a notice to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, and an order that a judge would sign. McClure reviews the documents before passing them to Prairie State, whose staff actually file and argue the cases in court.
These cases can take several months to be resolved, McClure said. Of the clinic’s 29 cases, 28 have resulted in the successful expungement or sealing of criminal records.
Illinois State’s undergraduate paralegal program is one of only about 4 percent in the nation that provides clinical opportunities like the clinic, McClure said. All of the students in the clinic are either studying to become lawyers or paralegals and are picking up important practical experience by handling these cases. McClure continued the program this fall.
Haley Schnapp, a criminal justice sciences major and legal studies minor, said the clinic has been valuable to her.
“These opportunities are not really offered to undergrads usually,” said Schnapp, who plans to go to law school after graduation. “So I was really interested in trying it out and getting the opportunity to do a clinic. It gives you a lot of experience.”
Further, Schnapp believes in the clinic’s mission. She has a relative with an extensive criminal record.
“It does feel good knowing that you help them, and that you did it for free as well,” she said. “I’ve realized through growing up with him that people deserve a second chance, and once you have those things on your record, it’s really hard to find a job. It’s hard to even get into housing.”
Just ask Lacie—an Expungement Clinic client who asked that her last name not be used for this article—about the barriers faced by those with a criminal conviction. She had two criminal records successfully sealed due to the efforts of the Illinois State students and Prairie State Legal Services.
Lacie was convicted of retail theft under $300 and contempt of court stemming from the same 2014 case.
“The sealing was amazing,” Lacie said. “Nobody wants to hire someone with a theft record. I’ve been struggling for years now.”
She is motivated to get a job now that she knows she can’t be rejected based solely on her record.
“This is an enormous deal,” Lacie said. “The service they provided changes everything for me. I want to kiss every one of them on the forehead. Tell them to keep up the good work. It’s changing lives for the better.”
Last spring Professor Thomas McClure donated $100,000 to Illinois State University to start the Thomas E. McClure Pro Bono Fund, an endowment to support the Expungement Clinic and its associated activities. The Department of Politics and Government welcomes additional donors who wish to contribute to the initiative. To learn more or contribute today, visit Giving.IllinoisState.edu or call (309) 438-2294.