Barriers to work and employment perpetuate dangerous cycle for ex-offenders and their families

Barriers to work and employment perpetuate dangerous cycle for ex-offenders and their families

Nearly 70,000 Illinois children have incarcerated parents who will need to be able to support their families after serving their sentences.

As Illinois politicians debate criminal-justice reform in 2016, they should be aware there’s more to reform than just sentence lengths. Politicians must also be focused on creating an environment that gives ex-offenders the opportunity to provide for their families after paying the price for their crimes. At least 70,000 children in Illinois have a parent behind bars at any given time, according to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The children of incarcerated parents are substantially more likely to experience economic hardship, and in many cases end up involved in the criminal-justice system themselves. When government unnecessarily incarcerates nonviolent offenders or makes it difficult for ex-offenders to find work, it hinders their ability to support themselves and their families. Former offenders have an estimated annual earning power that is $15,600 less than those who are not incarcerated, according to research by Pew Charitable Trusts. This reality brings an additional urgency to removing the barriers to work and employment that limit options for people who’ve already completed their sentences.

Illinois’ criminal-justice system should hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit. But it shouldn’t make it difficult to build a life once an offender has completed his sentence and paid his debt to society.

An effective criminal-justice policy needs to look beyond just sending people to prison and warehousing them at taxpayer expense. For lasting savings and to improve economic outcomes, lawmakers need to pay attention to what happens after prison.

Here’s where Illinois can start:

  • Prioritize drug treatment over incarceration : Illinois needs to divert more offenders into programs that directly target the underlying issues leading them to break the law. These programs, including drug treatment and supervised early release, not only cost thousands of dollars less per person than prison, but have a proven track record of rehabilitating offenders.
  • Expanding record sealing: Allowing former nonviolent offenders to petition courts to make their records viewable only by law enforcement or persons hiring for especially sensitive work gives these ex-offenders a better chance of finding stable employment. The Safer Foundation reported in 2008 that just 18 percent of its clients who found work ended up back behind bars within three years of release from prison. That’s a significant improvement on the overall recidivism rate: Nearly half of Illinois’ ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release – often because it’s hard for them to find work.
  • Remove occupational-licensing restrictions: By removing legal barriers to employment, Illinois can create economic opportunity for ex-offenders – and take in more revenue as those ex-offenders become taxpaying workers.

A strong criminal-justice system should prioritize public safety, and setting up former offenders to successfully support themselves and their children once they’re released should be part of that. Illinois can achieve this with the right reforms.

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