In a July 11 resolution, Chicago City Council’s Committee on Public Safety urged the General Assembly to pass “meaningful sealing reform” to help ex-offenders re-enter the job market and their communities more successfully.
Chicago City Council’s Committee on Public Safety passed a resolution calling on Springfield to expand sealing on July 11. Though largely symbolic, the resolution is an important sign lawmakers are ready to take action to foster employment among nonviolent ex-offenders who’ve paid their debt to society.
Sealing is one method of criminal-justice reform addressing the cycle of incarceration and crime costing taxpayers millions annually. It is a process by which a former offender can apply to have his or her record closed to most viewers, except for law enforcement agencies and employers in sensitive fields such as schools and financial institutions. This would remove the stigma of a record when an ex-offender applies for a job – one of the most significant barriers to employment for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society and need to find work after serving their time.
Strong evidence shows employment both reduces crime and can lead to significant taxpayer savings. Participants in a Safer Foundation program who held jobs for at least 30 days had a recidivism rate – or the rate at which they returned to crime after release from prison – of just 16 percent, compared to the state average of nearly 50 percent.
This is significant because over a five-year period, recidivism will cost the state of Illinois over $16.7 billion, according to a report by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, or SPAC. Approximately 48 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of release, costing Illinois taxpayers millions in taxes for prison, courts, police and public safety spending, millions in victimization costs, and millions in lost economic activity.
According to the same SPAC study, if re-entry policy changes reduced recidivism by just 1 percent, Illinois would save $37.4 million in prison, court and policing costs. If it fell by 5 percent, these savings would jump to nearly $187 million. A 10 percent reduction would lead to $373.6 million in taxpayer savings.
For an ex-offender to have his or her record sealed, he or she must make it through an adversarial process in the courts. After the ex-offender files a petition with a judge, law enforcement officials are notified and given the chance to oppose sealing the record if they believe the ex-offender still poses a public safety risk. But if successful, the ex-offender would be able to compete for employment on a more equal footing with other applicants.
Sealing not only helps ex-offenders, but is also a much more business-friendly reform than “ban the box.” Illinois and Chicago enacted ban-the-box laws in 2015, which require companies to wait until after an interview to ask applicants about a criminal record. Though well-intentioned, it imposed civil penalties and the risk of lawsuits to encourage hiring ex-offenders. Illinois law forbids employers with 15 or more employees from asking about records prior to an interview, and Chicago has an ordinance for employers of any size – with fines of up to $1,000 for a violation. The rules add hiring-related financial and time costs that smaller businesses in particular may find burdensome. And in addition to financial costs, it has other unintended consequences: There’s also increased evidence that with ban-the-box policies in place, employers are more likely to discriminate against black and Latino male applicants en masse, as these demographic groups are statistically likelier to include ex-offenders.
Small businesses created two-thirds of all new private-sector jobs in 2014, but are less able to handle the costs of increased legal compliance or the risk of fines. With lagging business growth in Illinois, the state can’t afford to keep adding burdens like ban-the-box laws, to job creators.
The idea that former nonviolent offenders could limit viewings of their criminal records to law enforcement might worry some. But safeguards are in place to address these concerns. For example, financial firms would need to know if prospective employees have committed any offenses related to fraud or embezzlement – and the law already provides for banking firms to see this information, even if a record is sealed. Schools are another field of employment in which knowing someone’s background may be critical – and schools also have access to all criminal records, even if they are sealed. Additionally, any kind of record not specifically addressed by statute could still be accessed through a court order if necessary.
But the general rule should be the punishment for a conviction is the prison sentence, parole or probation served by an offender. For most nonviolent offenses, at least, the ex-offender should have the option to petition a judge for record sealing after serving his or her sentence. If a judge, with the agreement of law enforcement officials, determines an offender has reformed, that ex-offender should have the chance to apply for work on the same grounds as anyone else – without the burden of a criminal record holding him or her back from employment.
The Illinois Policy Institute has outlined three principles for expanding sealing eligibility in Illinois:
- First, lawmakers should expand eligibility to apply for record sealing for most nonviolent offenses of any felony class.
- Second, lawmakers should eliminate the time an ex-offender must wait to be eligible to apply for sealing. After a prison sentence or parole has been successfully completed, a former offender should have the right to petition a court to have his or her record sealed.
- Third, the current law should be revised to presume that anyone with a nonviolent offense will be allowed to petition for record sealing unless the General Assembly chooses to specifically exclude that offense. This would be the opposite of the Criminal Identification Act in its current form, as only specific, listed offenses are now eligible for sealing.
Employment and work are critical components of reducing crime and the fiscal and social costs that come along with it. To reduce the number of people who commit crimes after incarceration, Illinois needs polices to increase employability. Sealing expansion can help.