Three criminal-justice reforms Illinois needs

Without a job, an ex-offender is likely to re-enter the system. Finding work breaks that cycle. Illinois needs major re-entry reforms that remove barriers to employment and work – and give ex-offenders a chance at success.

By Bryant Jackson-Green 
Illinois Policy

Each year, more than 30,000 people are released from Illinois prisons and face the challenge of re-entering society. And what most ex-offenders want more than anything is to find work so they can provide for themselves and their families.

But even after serving their time, these former offenders face huge obstacles to finding jobs and staying out of prison: bad state policies that make it incredibly difficult for ex-offenders to find work.

Once ex-offenders repay their debt to society, they shouldn’t have additional barriers to turning around their lives and staying out of crime. Illinois should encourage stable, legal employment that allows ex-offenders to support themselves and their families.

That’s not what happens today. The collateral consequences of criminal records punish former offenders even after they’ve completed their sentences. People with criminal records can be banned from getting educational loans, renting property in some areas, and working in at least 118 different occupations. And the stigma of a criminal record makes some private employers reluctant to look at job applications from former offenders.

Many reform advocates support “ban the box” policies that require businesses not to ask about an applicant’s record until after an interview as a way to help former offenders find work. But the downside of ban the box is that it creates burdensome regulations with which small businesses may struggle to comply, and may just shift rejection to later in the application process.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is aiming to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025. To accomplish this, the state needs sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration, such as drug and mental health courts. But Illinois also needs to fix what happens after incarceration. Can ex-offenders find meaningful work, support their families, and get their lives back on track? If they could, nearly 50 percent of men and women who serve their time in prison would not return within three years.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research from the Safer Foundation shows that Illinois ex-offenders who are employed a year after release can have a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent. Success is possible, but only with employment.

To encourage employment and self-sufficiency among former offenders, Illinois should lift restrictions that keep ex-offenders out of work and craft pro-growth policy solutions to create more economic opportunity. Finding a well-paying job soon after release is essential to making a successful transition from prison.

Here are three concrete ways the state can accomplish this:

  1. Sealing expansion: Allow most nonviolent offenders the chance to apply to have their criminal records sealed as soon as they successfully complete their prison sentences or parole, if applicable.
  1. Business-liability reform: Protect businesses from lawsuits based solely on hiring an employee with a criminal record.
  1. Occupational-licensing reform: Remove legal barriers that prevent former offenders from working in most licensed occupations.

Adopting meaningful reforms can help Illinois save taxpayer dollars by making it less likely that former offenders will be unemployed and fall back into crime. Studies have shown that recidivism – the rate at which former offenders relapse into crime – is substantially lower for those who find work than for those who remain unemployed.

Even a small decline in recidivism, just 1 percent, for example, would save the state $108.2 million over nine years in tax dollars, victimization costs and lost economic activity, according to an estimate by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

The easier it is for former offenders to find legal employment, the easier it will be for them to move from dependency to becoming productive taxpayers – and stay out of crime.

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