URBANA — As Champaign County's elected keeper of court records, Katie Blakeman says people ask her how to cover the tracks of their past mistakes almost daily.
"Either they are unemployed or underemployed and their criminal record is a barrier to them for employment," the circuit clerk said of the primary reason people ask to have records wiped out or sealed.
For those who need guidance with that legal process, Blakeman is sponsoring her first Expungement and Record Sealing Summit, set for 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 22 at Stone Creek Church, 2502 S. Race St., U.
"We've had an overwhelmingly positive response," said Blakeman, who was inspired to act by a similar event she attended last summer put on by the Cook County circuit clerk. "The primary objective of this event is to provide an opportunity for forms of relief that allow people to become more employable."
As of Friday, 471 people had registered since the event was announced a month ago.
"We have the ability to do this and it's one of the times it makes me happy to be in this position," she said. "The message is that your yesterday does not have to be your tomorrow."
However, Blakeman is in sore need of attorneys to help. She's hoping for at least 100 lawyer volunteers. To sweeten the deal for them, the lawyers may count their service as part of their required continuing legal education.
And for those lawyers not familiar with the process, Blakeman and Chicago-based Cabrini Green Legal Aid attorneys are offering training before the summit at the courthouse on Oct. 21.
"Expungements and sealings and alternative remedies are not well-suited to private practice because the individuals who need them don't have much money," observed Val McWilliams of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign, another of the agencies involved in the event. "This is an area where a criminal law background is very helpful for being able to understand the record but it is a civil process."
Associate Judge Brett Olmstead, who hears challenges to expungements, said when he was in private practice he was one of a handful of attorneys who handled such cases because they can be complicated.
Blakeman offered this basic explanation for the options: "Expungement is the process of legally destroying or striking out records related to criminal charges. Sealing is the process of removing criminal records from general review. The records remain; they are just not open to the public."
And if neither expungement nor sealing is an option for the suffering party, there is a category of relief referred to as "alternative remedies."
For instance, there are health care waivers that allow people to continue working in the health care profession, even with certain kinds of convictions in their past. There are certificates of relief from disabilities that could assist someone in obtaining a state license. That might include the ex-convict who's learned haircutting in prison and now needs to get a license to be a barber.
There's even a certificate of good conduct that attests someone has gone a certain amount of years without getting in more trouble.
Blakeman said because those people who most frequently request relief are poor and can't afford attorneys — at least 80 percent of the petitions received are accompanied by fee waivers, she says — the petitions they have filled out for a judge to consider may be incorrect.
"Most often, the pro se petitioners are filing for a remedy for which they do not qualify," she said.
At the summit, an attorney will help them determine what they qualify for and assistance in preparing the petition.
To be clear, the summit's purpose is to get the paperwork in the proper order for a judge to hear the request for relief. Records won't be wiped cleaned or sealed on the day of the event.
Olmstead said he's "anticipating a mountain of files" as a result of the summit but believes the hearings will be routine if the person had good guidance.
To make it even more accessible, Blakeman said Chief Judge Dan Flannell has entered a fee waiver for that day to save petitioners the $136 filing fee normally required.
For those people who register in advance, Blakeman has advised them to get background checks done at the sheriff's office prior to the event. That way, the attorneys can look over their records that day and give them the best advice. The sheriff's office has also agreed to waive the $40 fingerprinting fee for registered participants.
The summit will also feature babysitting, free MTD bus service and resources on education, employment, housing, medical coverage, mental health and substance abuse.
The Secretary of State will also be on hand to advise people whose licenses have been revoked or suspended on how to get them back; the county clerk will be there to register people to vote; and the State Department will send a representative to advise folks who might need a passport.
"What has been so rewarding to me in working on this is that it has been so collaborative," Blakeman said. "Every county office department, social service agency and local legislative offices have bent over backwards to help us," she said.
For those wanting more information, contact Blakeman at the circuit clerk's office at the courthouse in Urbana at 217-384-3725.