Pending legislature would allow ex-felons to work for schools

April 14, 2015
By Bryant Jackson-Green

This article was written by Dusty Rhodes and originally featured on Peoria Public Radio on April 14.

Current state law prohibits people with felony records from working in a school, or volunteering, or even driving a truck that makes deliveries to a school. IPR’s Dusty Rhodes has a report on a measure pending in the legislature could change that.

“Thank you madam chair, members of the committee. First I need to adopt an amendment….”

That’s State Representative Kelly Cassidy — a Chicago Democrat — about to ask a legislative committee to endorse her bill that would allow former felons to be eligible for employment in schools. Or as the security guard outside the statehouse committee room put it, “let convicts work with kids.” Cassidy, of course, phrases it differently.

“House bill 494 simply seeks to offer some clarity and opportunity to folks who may have made some mistakes in their past….”

Then she explains the effect of current law:

“What we operate under now is based on the assumption that someone with a criminal history is always a criminal, and never eligible to return to productive society.”

She quickly emphasizes what her proposal does NOT do — it doesn’t REQUIRE schools to hire anyone with a criminal record, it doesn’t give them any special rights. Still, several lawmakers headed to other meetings leave during her testimony, registering their “nay” votes on their way out the door. It takes two rounds of voting, and a lot of political maneuvering, before the committee agrees to send the measure to the House floor with a positive recommendation.

Floyd Stafford could benefit from Cassidy’s legislation.

“I got a felony for a non-violent drug offense. So basically, I purchased some drugs, and you know, I got arrested for that.”

In 2006, he got caught buying cocaine, less than a gram, and served four months in jail. Stafford says the drug treatment he received while incarcerated changed his life. Since his release, he says he has stayed clean and sober; he is currently enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he’s set to finish in June with a master’s degree in social work.

“If you’re looking at my resume, I’d put that up — and I say this in all humility — I would line that up with any other prospective applicant, and I think I would come out favorably.”

His dream job is to work with kids in a Chicago public school, because he believes that’s where he could be most effective.

“I wanna be able to intervene before someone gets in trouble or goes through unfortunate circumstance or situation. And schools, to me, are the best place where that can happen.”

Bryant Jackson-Green says former felons like Stafford could provide just  the kind of guidance certain kids need.

“To have someone with that background, who’s maybe made a mistake and turned their life around, holds a lot of credibility with students who may be on the wrong track, so it would be helpful, especially in a social worker position.”

Jackson-Green is a criminal justice policy analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank that is actively supporting Cassidy’s bill, creating a novel partnership.

“It’s not a familiar situation for me to have IPI on my side…. because I am the most, darn near the most liberal member, and so we don’t often find ourselves on the same side.”

Jackson-Green explains the Institute’s support by pointing to statistics. The recidivism rate for felons who have jobs is 15 percent. For felons who do not have jobs, it’s three times that. But that’s not the only reason.

“The sort of bills we support are things that encourage redemption, second chances. I mean, yes, someone  might have made a mistake when they were 18, 19 and gotten in trouble. But that doesn’t mean they should be barred for the rest of their life from having an employment opportunity with the school.”

The Illinois State Board of Education is officially opposed to Cassidy’s measure, but they’re continuing to negotiate with the lawmaker.