By Heather Niemetschek
Illinois Policy Action
A bill removing lifetime bans on employment in schools for some nonviolent felony offenders passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives just before the April 24 deadline.
The legislation, House Bill 494, was sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago). A coalition of organizations, including Illinois Policy Action, partnered on as part of a criminal-justice reform agenda.
HB 494 would allow former offenders who have served time for certain nonviolent crimes, such shoplifting or possession of over 30 grams of marijuana, to apply and compete for jobs after a waiting period either post-conviction or post-parole, depending on the offense.
The bill gives true local control to schools with regard to hiring those with felonies in their past, as opposed the absolute ban that has prevented school administrators from considering ex-offenders for jobs even if they wanted to. It does not require any school to hire an applicant with a felony conviction. Rather, the law would empowers employers to find the best candidate for their school based on full information of the applicant’s history. The legislation was created in collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education.
HB 494 most notably addresses substance-abuse convictions, which have prevented offenders who made a victimless mistake in the past from ever having the chance to prove to a school that they are fully rehabilitated.
Setting up the right incentives to work toward employment opportunities is a step in the right direction for criminal-justice reform in Illinois. With prisons operating at over 150 percent capacity and costing more than $35,000 a year per inmate, the current 47 percent recidivism rate in Illinois is unsustainable. It is also preventable. Ex-offenders that find full-time employment upon release can have as low as a 15 percent recidivism rate. Not only are these employed ex-offenders not going back to prison, but they are actively contributing to Illinois communities and the state economy.
This bill reflects an encouraging bipartisan commitment to transforming Illinois’ model of criminal justice into one that supports rehabilitation, reemployment and opportunity.