By Austin Berg
Illinois News Network
Susan Trieschmann was sick of hearing the same story.
Kid grows up in a dangerous household. Kid commits a crime. Kid says he never would have done it if he had a job.
What Trieschmann heard day after day in meetings of formerly incarcerated youth in Evanston spurred her to act. With the skills she learned starting her own catering business, she opened Curt’s Cafe, which teaches life skills through restaurant work and counseling to kids who have been in and out of the criminal-justice system.
The results have been astounding. In her program, Trieschmann says only 2 percent of the more than 150 participants have been back behind bars, compared with a nearly 60 percent rate of return generally for juveniles who have gone through the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.
The data show she’s onto something.
Extensive research demonstrates that one of the best predictors of whether someone will re-offend is whether he or she can find a decent job. But ex-offenders’ odds of finding a job are poor. Survey data suggest as many as 60 to 75 percent of former offenders are unemployed a year after their release.
One major barrier to steady employment for those with criminal records? Occupational licenses, which cover jobs from barber, to cosmetologist, to funeral director, to architect. In fact, nearly 25 percent of Illinois’ workforce requires government permission to work. A youthful mistake could lead to months or years of waiting for permission to work, or even a lifetime ban, for a wide swath of jobs that can provide a path to self-sufficiency in adulthood.
It’s encouraging then that the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced April 11 that ex-offenders who have completed training in barbering and cosmetology while incarcerated will be able to apply for a license to work before their release from prison. Instead of waiting months to get their licenses after release, this change will allow more former offenders to find work as soon as they complete their sentences.
Megan Royer from Peoria is enrolled in a cosmetology program while incarcerated. The new rules will allow her to apply for a license six months before her scheduled release in 18 months.
“We need to provide for our families as soon as we get out there …” Royer said. “Being able to go out into society and have that license on hand, we are able to just start applying for jobs in the field. It’s a great thing for them to do.”
But opening paths to productive futures for ex-offenders will require more than tweaks around the edges. Ex-offenders’ returning to a life of crime is a massive problem in Illinois. Nearly half of the people released from Illinois prisons each year will have returned three years later. Too often, the same individuals repeatedly cycle through the system.
This cycle of crime comes with enormous fiscal costs for Illinoisans and threatens public safety.
According to research from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Illinois taxpayers will pay about $5.7 billion over the next five years in costs related to ex-offenders returning to prison, assuming the current rate of return stays constant. And repeat offenders commit a majority of crimes in the state, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.
With this in mind, Gov. Bruce Rauner has set a goal of safely reducing Illinois’ prison population 25 percent by 2025.
The General Assembly is considering a few bills that would help reduce repeat offenses by removing barriers to employment. House Bill 5973, for instance, would prohibit the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation from denying an application for an occupational license based on criminal offenses that are unrelated to the profession in question. This is an encouraging reform that would prevent Illinoisans from being denied their right to work because of a crime for which they have already received punishment, and that has no relation to the career they want to pursue.
The fiscal and societal costs of unemployment and underemployment among ex-offenders are staggering. Tools to address those costs are on the table in Springfield. It’s time to act.