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Thursday, March 17, 2016 12:17 am

Don’t deny occupations to ex-offenders

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) released 29,962 prisoners in 2014, according to the department’s FY2014 annual report. Research suggests that the ex-offender’s biggest hurdle to reentry is convincing potential employers to overlook their past mistakes. All individuals with conviction records face numerous challenges reintegrating back into society, but African-Americans are disproportionately impacted. Blacks make up 57.9 percent of the Illinois prison population, despite the fact that African-Americans are only 14.7 percent of the total population in Illinois.

Once released, most ex-offenders return to their communities, where there are high levels of unemployment, poverty, drugs, gangs and limited resources. According to IDOC, the largest group of inmates, 1,570, went to ZIP code 60608 on Chicago’s near west side. Offenders who failed to participate in reentry programs while incarcerated will be returned to prison within five years, according to a study conducted by the Congressional Research Service. Blighted communities that already have a high unemployment rate, inadequate educational institutions and poor housing will only add more stress to offenders who are trying to remain clean.

Individuals with criminal backgrounds experience a greater disadvantage in transitioning back into society. Ex-offenders face a magnitude of restrictions during their probationary period, including limited employment opportunities and exclusion from receiving support with basic needs such as supplemental food assistance (SNAP) benefits, subsidized housing and other safety net programs.

Ex-offenders are left with scarce resources to help them become restored and productive citizens. To make matters worse, Illinois has mandatory restrictions on many employment opportunities, in addition to mandatory restrictions on the business and professional licenses needed to access specific types of employment. A study conducted by the Alliance for a Just Society stated Illinois has 258 mandatory restrictions on employment for people with felony convictions. A few examples of senseless occupational license denial or restrictions are licenses for barbers or cosmetologists, athletic trainers, dentists and even insurance providers. Mandatory restrictions make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to find employment that pays well.

The Illinois General Assembly needs to review and consider removing mandatory licensing restrictions to employment. State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford of the 8th District stated, “It’s un-American to be excluded from life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness. America is supposed to be the land that welcomes hope and opportunities. Lifetime bans for qualified workers go against the morals of America.”

Rep. Marcus C. Evans Jr. of the 33rd District and vice chair of the House Business and Occupational Licenses committee filed House Bill 5973, which provides that the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation “may not refuse” to issue a license because of convictions unless the crime substantially and directly relates to the occupation for which the license is sought. The bill has bipartisan support from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the Safer Foundation and the Illinois Policy Institute.

Danielle Stanley is a research associate at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy think tank that promotes social, racial and economic justice for everyone. Danielle was a resident of Springfield for five years where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Illinois Springfield. She served as a James H. Dunn Fellow in Legislative Affairs and worked as a legislative liaison for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, Senate Democrat Caucus. She currently resides in Chicago.

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