- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Desperate to curb the gun violence wracking their city, Chicago lawmakers are leading the way toward a counterintuitive idea - fighting crime by making it easier for young people to wipe away minor arrest records.

The goal is to give tens of thousands of teens a better chance to find work or get into college, rather than letting a minor episode with police possibly doom them to a life on the gang-dominated streets of some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

A law recently passed by the state Legislature made Illinois one of the few states to automatically expunge the criminal records of juveniles who were arrested but never charged.

Mariama Bangura, 17, was arrested last year after she was accused of threatening a teacher. Though she was never charged, she worries that the incident could sink her adult ambitions.

“I want to be a nurse or massage therapist, and what if the whole thing keeps coming up?” she asked. “I want a career.”

Expungement is not a new idea. The service has long been available for minor arrests and convictions if people know about it and can afford to hire an attorney. The Illinois law makes it automatic for offenses that happen in a specific time frame.

Last year in Cook County alone, about 16,000 juvenile arrests would have been eligible for expungement. Of those, only 661 people applied. All but one succeeded in having their records cleared.

That means tens of thousands of young people have arrest records that could derail applications for public housing, financial aid, a teaching certificate or a license to cut hair.

Chicago lawmakers also led the push to “ban the box,” a reference to the box on many employment applications that asks job seekers whether they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. The proposal would prevent businesses with 15 or more employees from asking about applicants’ criminal records before offering a job interview. The measure was approved this past spring and signed Saturday by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Employers can still ask about criminal history later in the job-application process.

Together, the two measures mark a shift in focus away from simply punishing crime to removing some of the most common obstacles that prevent people with minor records from building self-sufficient lives.

“Chicago continues to be riddled with crime because ex-offenders return without opportunities to be productive citizens,” said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, sponsor of the one of the proposals.

The shift was on full display last fall when several black state lawmakers blocked a bill to impose stiffer prison sentences for illegal gun possession, which they saw as little more than a recipe to lock up more blacks and Latinos. The measure was strongly supported by both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

“Our jails are busting at the seams,” said state Rep. Arthur Turner of Chicago, sponsor of the expungement bill. “So we’d like to take a different approach here in Illinois.”

To reduce violence, Chicago has also tried flooding the streets with more police officers and setting up meetings between families of murder victims and gang members. One group has even offered yoga in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods in the hopes of easing tensions.

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