Her fingers trembled as she typed the meeting ID and password into the box on the screen of her laptop. Each finger seemed to strike the keyboard against her will, as if dragging her to a final confrontation she dreaded but knew she couldn’t avoid. The only way out is through. She felt sick in the same way she did eight years ago when the police knocked on her door. How could this be happening to her? People who get arrested did something wrong, and they know it. So why was she being led away from her husband and four-month-old son when she had no idea what it was, she was supposed to feel guilty for?
In many ways, she was lucky. She was 34 years old, and this was the first time in her adult life she had been arrested. When the prosecutor offered her a special probation only available to defendants without prior felony convictions, her lawyer urged her to take it. She knew deep down she hadn’t done anything wrong, but her case had been pending for two years already. The lawyer’s bills were piling up, and the endless court dates had already taken a tremendous mental toll on her and her husband. She didn’t know how much longer she could last. And how could she risk losing at trial and being separated for however many months from her toddler son? She knew in her heart the only thing she was guilty of was being unfamiliar with the legal requirements of closing a loved one’s estate after their passing. And no consequences would have ever come of it had an opportunistic, distant relative not come out of the woodwork and tried to find a way to get a piece of the estate. The check she signed was in her name from an account where she was a joint account holder. But none of that mattered now. A system designed to get you to plead guilty no matter what. So she pleaded guilty, but with the private vindication that no restitution would be paid. The court was essentially agreeing that money from her late grandmother was rightfully hers; she just hadn’t followed the correct procedure in gaining access to it.
They had made it sound so simple that day she signed the plea agreement. Complete your probation and your record will be cleared. She couldn’t remember anyone telling her she’d be required to wait five years from the day she completed probation just to file the paperwork. And then another two years after that spent just waiting for a hearing. All because the Clerk of Courts couldn’t be bothered to give her a timely court date. As they saw it, she wasn’t their problem. She wasn’t significant enough in their eyes to move them to act on the paperwork she had filed. She had already lost five years of good income from her position as a senior claims representative at a national insurance company. Her boss didn’t want to let her go, but they couldn’t keep her while she had that felony conviction on her record. Their hands were tied. Then two more years of needlessly lost income just because the clerk of courts didn’t care enough to properly do the job, she happily took a paycheck for. And apparently nobody in the city government could, or would, do anything about it. Two years of income that wouldn’t be available for her son’s college fund, the mortgage payments, their retirement…
She thought back on all of that as she slowly moved the cursor on her screen over to the “join meeting” button. Once she clicked that button, some fifty or so strangers, along with anyone else who happened to log onto the live YouTube broadcast that day, would have a close-up. direct view of her face as she silently listened to the prosecutor tell the judge all about her crime, her guilt, and that she was not deserving of a second chance. She dreaded it in the pit of her stomach but took some relief knowing her attorney from Cabrini Green Legal Aid would be there. She couldn’t imagine what she would say if she had to do it on her own, or if she would even be able to get the words out. She had reached out to CGLA a year earlier just hoping that someone, anyone, would be able to tell her what happened to the paperwork she had filed. She was surprised when she got a response since, she wasn’t even a client. She had filled out and filed her petition on her own. They checked the system, found her court date, and asked her to forward the petition she had created on just to ensure it was properly completed and all her cases were included so that this long process wouldn’t be for nothing. Most importantly to her, they said a Cabrini Green Legal Aid attorney would argue her case to the judge totally free of charge.
She listened as her CGLA attorney pointed out the weaknesses of the state’s original conviction against her to the judge. And how this was one case was the sum total of her entire adult record. She listened as her attorney made the court see her as a person. An only child that had grown up in central Illinois studied marketing at Eastern Illinois University and landed a job right after graduation, how she rose steadily in the decade after graduation through hard work and eventually found herself with a good-paying career in a senior position at a national insurance company. A young African American woman who had stepped up and carved out her place in a world that wasn’t designed with her in mind. Her CGLA attorney showed the court the offer letters she had received once she started looking for work completing probation, only to be turned away once the felony conviction inevitably appeared on the background check. $78,000, paid time off, and great insurance coverage for her and her family from this company. $85,000 and benefits from another company. Her attorney showed the court the continuing education she had kept up with in spite of everything. She kept up with the hope that she could one day finally put all of this behind her and resume her career, eight years interrupted. And finally, her attorney told the court how all of that perseverance and struggle to claw her way back, it was for her husband and her young son, now eight years old, and the life they were trying to create together.
She cried when the judge entered the order granting the expungement. She clicked the ‘x’ in the corner of the screen, and she was alone again, and it was quiet. No more faces in small boxes staring back at her, listening to strangers tell stories from her past. It was a sunny, early spring afternoon in Chicago that day after a long pandemic winter, and as she closed her laptop, she was also closing the last page of a chapter of eight years of struggle and exclusion. Everything was in front of her now, and the past melted away like the last, small piles of ice outside. Her CGLA attorney was happy for her too that day. But neither were as happy as they would be when she emailed two months later to say: “I got a NEW JOB!!!! Thank you, Thank you!! I am over the moon today!”