Efforts To Remove Work Barriers For Ex-Convicts Find Bipartisan Support

Jun 18, 2015

Advocates from Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Community Renewal Society and Heartland Alliance with Chicago Democratic Senator Patricia Van Pelt (in the middle), sponsor of HB 494.
Credit Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Illinois lawmakers were not able to reach an agreement on the state’s budget in the spring session. However, both chambers managed to approve a number of bills that could make it easier for those with criminal records to secure jobs or at least get a foot in the door.

Almost half of the state’s offenders return to prison after completing their sentence according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.  When people with criminal convictions try to reenter society, they face difficulty with basic things like finding work and housing because of their criminal history.   

House Bill 3475, sponsored by Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, would expand the types of convictions eligible for Certificates of Rehabilitation. Such documents include: Certificates of Good Conduct, which can be presented to potential employers, and Certificates of Relief from Disabilities, which can allow people with criminal histories to obtain certain business licenses. The certificates do not change or wipe out a criminal record, but they may convince employers to give an applicant a second chance. They also reduce the legal liability risk for a business that hires a worker with a criminal record. 

While most misdemeanor violent convictions are eligible for this remedy, this bill would allow judges to consider higher-level drug-related and more serious crimes that did not result in bodily injury or death. “You have to jump through all types of hoops to prove that you’ve changed,” Mayfield says. “It doesn’t guarantee anybody a job, but it does give them a chance to say they’ve turned their lives around and paid their debt to society.”

Charles Austin, a community leader for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has two Certificates of Rehabilitation. More than two decades ago, Austin served 60 days in Cook County jail and two years’ probation for possession and distribution of drugs—an offense that carries a lifetime ban on working in any school-related occupation.

Because of his record, Austin lost a job as a delivery truck driver for a Chicago Public Schools sub-contractor. “Nobody really knows the long-term impact that this [kind of] behavior has on our lives,” Austin says.

That’s why he advocated for HB 494, which would provide an opportunity for ex-offenders with criminal convictions  for nonviolent crimes, including drug convictions more than seven years old, to be considered for jobs and volunteer positions in Illinois school districts. The bill passed with bipartisan support.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless leader Charles Austin talks with Rockford Republican Rep. Joe Sosnowski.
Credit Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“Schools are a very focal part of most communities, especially in the inner city,” says Jonathan Holmes, a policy fellow at the Coalition for the Homeless. “We realize that absolute bars are not appropriate and prevent people from being assets and involved in their community.”

School officials would still be required to perform complete criminal background checks on all applicants as well as search sex, murder and arson offender registries.

However, some legislators say they are apprehensive because the bill would extend eligibility criteria to include those convicted of prostitution, public indecency and victims of human trafficking. These convictions are classified as misdemeanor sex offenses. But, Holmes says these cases should be viewed as “a particular circumstance of being homeless.”

“We don’t see those as sex offenses as opposed to someone who has done direct harm to a child,” Holmes says. “A lot of people who are prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking. Because they’re victims, [these crimes] shouldn’t prevent them from ever working.”  

Rep. Litesa Wallace, a Rockford Democrat, voted against the bill. “I’m not against any types of reform that allow people to get back on their feet, so we can reduce recidivism,” Wallace says. “I think we have to be very careful as to how we do it and what populations we start to allow individuals to work with.” 

Another bill, which also cleared both chambers with bipartisan backing, would give a head start to those who prepare for employment while they are still incarcerated.

HB 3149 would allow prisoners, who complete their education while incarcerated, the right to apply to have their records sealed immediately after completing their sentence.  Currently, there is a waiting period between three to five years, depending on the severity of the offense.  

Sealing legally restricts many employers from viewing an applicant’s criminal history and removes the person’s name from public records. Only law enforcement,  courts and those required to conduct background checks such as school, park and health officials, would have access to the information.

The types of offenses eligible for sealing would remain the same, including most misdemeanor and felony charges that are not sex offenses, violent crimes, gun-related charges, reckless driving or DUIs. 

Todd Belcore, lead attorney in the Community Justice Unit at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, estimates that over 200,000 people across the state could potentially take advantage of sealing based on arrest and incarceration rates related to eligible offenses. “These are people that generally our society has deemed should not be serving significant time in prison and certainly should not be denied access to jobs and housing as a result,” Belcore says.

Rep. John Cabello, who sponsored the bill, says those who’ve committed violent crimes should not be eligible. “If you murdered or hurt somebody in the commission of a crime, that raises it to another level,” says Cabello, a Loves Park Republican. “I want to make sure the victims’ families are always kept in mind when we try to pass these types of laws.”

SB 844 would shorten by one year the overall waiting period before a person would be able to request sealing. If Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the measure, the average wait for all eligible offenders would be three years.

Rep. David Harris, who voted in favor of this bill, says that generally employers should have access to every applicant’s criminal history.  “I have voted for some sealing in the past, when it’s on a very limited basis,” says the Arlington Heights Republican. “But, I have a general reluctance to sealed records.”

But Harris says he did not support HB 3149 because: “The mere fact that an individual has obtained a high school diploma or a GED while incarcerated, does not give them the opportunity to have their records sealed [immediately upon release] on that basis alone.”

Belcore says without policies in place to counteract the stigma of having a criminal record, ex-offenders would not have much hope. “There is a population of people who are just opposed to the notion of limiting who can look at old records,” Belcore says. “They don’t know that 65 percent of employers (nationally) won’t hire a person with a conviction of any kind, no matter how long ago it is, no matter what it was.”

Although these bills could, in theory, help ward off bias in the employment process, more research is needed, Belcore says.  

Chicago Democratic Rep. Mary Flowers introduced House Resolution 498, which calls on Rauner’s commission on criminal justice reform to study re-entry issues, including the effectiveness of sealing in breaking employment barriers. The commission was created through an executive order earlier this year and is tasked with reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by the next decade.

One of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Chicago Democratic Rep. Esther Golar, says the proposal would put “the real responsibility on government to allow them to begin to look at some of the issues that ex-offenders have to go through in order to reintegrate into their communities.”

Flowers says her goal is to find effective ways to empower those who have served their time, especially African American men and women. A group she says is subject to “post-incarceration, a life sentence of second-class citizenship.” The House unanimously approved the resolution.