State: Can society forgive?

By Scott Reeder
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD – Should people be judged for the rest of their lives by the worst things they ever did?

I don’t think so.

Our society needs to offer some level of forgiveness and redemption, particularly to non-violent offenders.

If one breaks the law, a price needs to be paid.

But at some point society needs to stop extracting its full measure of vengeance.

Employers are often unwilling to hire ex-offenders, and government unnecessarily aggravates the problem.

Here in Illinois, there are at least 118 professions for which government either must or may deny a license to anyone with a felony record.

For example, anyone who aspires to be a barber, boxer, cosmetologist, funeral home director, accountant or roofer, can be turned away by the government long after he or she has served time and paid his or her debt to society.

These limitations make little sense for a state seeking to imprison fewer of its citizens and reduce dependency.

Those released from prison should be expected to support themselves and their families. But they can’t do this if government makes it even more difficult for them to find work.

Too often folks leave prison and find themselves unable to find a job because of their records.

I was thinking of that the other day when I read a headline that said former state Rep. Connie Howard was going to prison.

Howard was a respected member of the Illinois General Assembly who worked to help offenders.

I dug around in my files and came up with an interview I did with her from July of 2000.

“At some point, we have to be able to forgive,” she said. “People need to be able to get jobs and move on with their lives. Some people really have a hard time getting work if they always have to put on a job application that they have been convicted of a crime,” she told me 15 years ago.

Not much has changed since then.

Now, after serving 17 years in the General Assembly, Howard finds herself in that group she worked so hard to help — felons.

The Chicago Democrat pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge and will report to prison sometime after Christmas to serve a three-month sentence.

About $28,000 that she raised, ostensibly for college scholarships, went instead toward her own uses.

It was a stupid, selfish act.

And she should pay a price for that. In fact, she will most likely lose her state pension in addition to serving her time behind bars. And that is the way it should be.

But it doesn’t erase all the good she has done, nor should it serve as a permanent impediment to her once again becoming a productive member of society,

But it probably will.

Throughout Illinois, you’ll find felons who have served their time but who now struggle to support themselves and their families.

Illinoisans should hang their heads in shame that nearly 45 percent of offenders released from Illinois prisons will return within three years.

Just as Howard told me a decade and a half ago, our society needs to learn to forgive.

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