In a way, it's just one little box on a lengthy college application form. But for many would-be students, that box is more of a stop sign if the instructions say "check here if you have a criminal record." State Rep. Barbara Wheeler, a Republican from Crystal Lake, wants to change that. She sat down with our Education Desk reporter Dusty Rhodes to explain why.
Rep. Wheeler: A couple of years ago, a constituent came to me after he had been in some trouble during his high school years, and he needed some help with expungement as well as some advice in regard to going on with his life after high school graduation.
DR: And expungement is erasing conviction?
Rep. Wheeler: Right. So we worked on an automatic expungement bill, that was signed by the governor, so that if a minor did go through the criminal justice system and successfully completed, his records would be automatically expunged. Along with that, though, he was having trouble applying for colleges because he came to that question — do you have a criminal record?
DR: So when you’re applying for college, you hit that question at what point?
Rep. Wheeler: The question for criminal records is on the common application, it does ask for it, and that’s national. But most of the state universities don’t use the common app and they have their own individual application. So in various forms, they ask the question about criminal background. And we found that it becomes a barrier for students. Once they start to apply and they see that question, we’ll never really know how many students stop the process when they come to that box. That’s the first population which we’re considering with this bill. The second population we do have numbers on, and that would be the population that starts the process, answers the question honestly that yes, they have a criminal background, and then they stop because they were asked for a follow-up in regard to that quesiton.
DR: Okay, let’s go back to your constituent.
Rep. Wheeler: Well, he started to apply to colleges, and he successfully had gone through the adjudication process, so honestly, he wouldn’t have even had to answer that question in the affirmative. But most students don’t know that. That’s something that either his lawyer should’ve told him or the student counselor. Regardless though, it was a barrier; he stopped the process and to this day — in fact, I just spoke to him today — he hadn’t continued applying for school and he’s looking for a job.
DR: You don’t have to answer this, but I have to ask: What was his crime?
Rep. Wheeler: It was petty theft and possession of drugs.
DR: So what your bill would do is …
Rep. Wheeler: My bill would prohibit them from asking the question on the application. However, upon admission — when you get the thick packet instead of the thin letter saying you were denied — in the thick packet, among many other questions now that they have to fill out, the university would ask, “Do you have a criminal background. If so, please explain.” And then their regular process would begin.
And it would be remiss to say that schools aren’t allowing people with criminal backgrounds in their schools. They are. And they have a process to make sure the student is successful and the campus is safe.
DR: The police chief from Illinois State University was there as a vocal opponent to your bill, and he was really focused on sex offenders. You mentioned to me that you have a daughter in college. So how do you square your bill with the possibility of a sex offender being on campus with your own child?
Rep. Wheeler: Well, I think it’s foolish to think that there aren’t sex offenders on college campuses. We know that there are. The question was really do you want them in the dormitory. And that’s a question the schools — depending upon the severity of the crime — the school’s going to have to answer, and can restrict housing.
DR: So the way the current situation is, if I’m applying for college and I have a criminal background, I have a choice of either not checking the box and lying, basically…
Rep. Wheeler: Right.
DR: …. Or checking the box, and then that puts me in some review process, right?
Rep. Wheeler: Yes. If you check the box, and answer honestly, and you academically qualify for the school, then there comes a review process. It seems like every process from every different university is just a little bit different. And they’ll send another letter saying tell us a little bit more. Some of them ask for letters of recommendation. Some of them ask for a letter from a probation officer or corrections officer, which can be very difficult to get. Or the student doesn’t want to go through the process. It’s in that population that gets the review question that we see the drop-off of 60 percent.
DR: One thing that you mentioned in your testimony was that you don’t seem like the likely sponsor of this bill.
Rep. Wheeler: No, I’m definitely not the likely sponsor of this bill. I’m from a very conservative area up on northern Illinois, predominantly white. Two years ago, it was hand-in-hand with the expungement bill, just providing an opportunity for people to move on with their lives. You know, people coming out of the corrections facilities have a 44 percent chance of returning back to the prison. With a bachelor’s degree, it’s a 5.6 percent chance. With a master’s degree, it’s 1 percent chance of returning to prison. Having some college education pretty much minimizes any chance of returning to prison.
You mentioned that I have a daughter in college, but I also have three coming that are 8th grade, freshman and sophomore, and they all intend to go to college. I would never do this if I thought it would be a threat to their safety and put them in danger. I actually think this bill, if you really think it through and go with the statistics and facts, the argument is really toward a safer community, which includes campus, which includes our neighborhoods, which includes our towns and our cities. That’s why I wanted to do this bill.
“The one thing that I think the General Assembly, along with the leadership of the governor, has done right in the last two sessions is criminal justice reform. We all recognize the importance of meaningful employment and education to help reduce recidivism. We still have a lot more we can do reforming our criminal justice system, but there’s nothing as important as the budget, and I’m hoping everybody can focus the remaining part of our session on the budget.
DR: While you’re here, I want to ask you about your other bill that’s getting some attention, which would allow a kid between the ages of 18 and 21 to actually have a glass of wine or beer in a restaurant with the parents, grandparents or step-parents. What inspired that bill?
Rep. Wheeler: Alright, so like I mentioned, I’m from Northern Illinois, so I’m a border state with Wisconsin. There are 10 states that allow under-age drinking with legal guardians. In the state of Wisconsin, it’s any age under 21, it’s pretty much anyone who’s acting like a legal guardian, and it’s any kind of alcohol. So that was the original bill. Then Leader Durkin said, ‘Well, maybe beer and wine, Barb, but I think you’re pushing it. You don’t want them to do shots with their parents at the bar.' And he was probably right.
Really, it’s about teaching minders moderation drinking, and hopefully good role-modeling from the parents. You know, America is unique in its binge drinking. If you look beyond our country throughout the world, you see that it’s not as restrictive, it’s not as prohibitive.