Rauner signs bill giving ex-offenders a shot at success
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s pen writes a storybook ending for a single mom from Decatur.
When Lisa Creason was in nursing school, she never thought for a second that she’d meet the governor. But she always thought she’d be a registered nurse.
That is, until the state told the 43-year-old mother of three that a crime she committed as a teenager would prevent her from obtaining a nursing license.
Creason was devastated. But she fought back. And she won.
On Aug. 25, Creason watched Gov. Bruce Rauner sign Senate Bill 42 into law. For nearly two years, Creason drove from her Decatur home to the Statehouse to fight for the bill, which gives ex-offenders like her a shot at a productive career in health care.
“Lisa Creason and her story [are] such an inspiration for all of us,” Rauner said. “She didn’t let [her past] hold her back. She cared and wanted to make our community better and safer.”
Fighting for a second chance
By all accounts, Lisa Creason is a respected member of her community.
She’s mother to three children whose father was killed tragically in 2002 by a stray bullet. That spurred her to found a successful nonprofit combating youth violence, which joined with local churches and other nonprofits to form a chapter of CeaseFire in Decatur.
In 2012, Creason enrolled in nursing school with the hope of securing a better-paying job. She knew this was the key to moving her family out of her low-income neighborhood, which was plagued with gang violence.
When she graduated from nursing school, Creason called her mother in tears.
“I will never forget coming home from the school and calling my mom and telling her I passed the final. I’m done,” Creason said.
“I’m actually going to be able to buy my kids a home, [I thought]. I’m actually going to be able to afford to move my kids out of the ‘hood.”
But her optimism was short-lived. Less than a month after graduating with an associate degree in applied science in nursing from Richland Community College, Creason was denied the chance to clear the last hurdle to becoming a registered nurse: a state test granting her a license to practice.
Why? A crime she committed more than two decades ago.
A crime of survival leads to a scarlet letter
At age 19, Creason tried to steal money from a Subway cash register in Decatur because she needed to feed her daughter. At age 20, she was sentenced to three years in prison on attempted robbery and an unrelated burglary charge. She got out on work release a year later.
That conviction was the only thing that stood between Creason and her dream.
In 2011, state lawmakers passed legislation adding “forcible felonies” to the list of crimes for which health care workers can be denied licenses to practice under the Health Care Worker Background Check Act. This crime classification includes attempted robbery, barring Creason and hundreds like her from licensure.
Creason’s situation was maddening. Because she couldn’t legally practice as a registered nurse, she has worked as a certified nursing assistant for a decade after obtaining a state waiver. But her earnings aren’t enough for Creason to be completely independent. She still relies on welfare programs to care for her two sons, as well as a teenage boy over whom she has custody.
“I just want to go to work as a nurse, take care of my kids and get off of government assistance,” Creason said. “That’s it.”
Her struggle was of little interest to the state.
“To be told after all we’ve been through that I wasn’t good enough … it was devastating,” she said.
“My nine-year-old didn’t have any idea of my criminal history, and I had to sit down with him and talk to him about that, because of all this. He didn’t understand.”
The importance of reform
State officials may have underestimated Creason’s determination. SB 42 was the product of her struggle.
The bill allows those with forcible felonies on their records (other than sexual offenses) to seek waivers from the state to obtain health care worker licenses, provided the convictions occurred more than five years prior to applying for a waiver.
But nursing is just one occupation under which rehabilitated ex-offenders are severely restricted in Illinois. There are more than 100 professional and occupational licenses that can be denied to applicants on the basis of a criminal record.
Given that nearly all of the tens of thousands of Illinoisans convicted of felonies every year will return to their communities at some point, these barriers pose a huge threat to successful reintegration.
The state must overhaul its occupational licensing rules, especially when it comes to ex-offenders in search of honest employment.
Prior to signing the health care licensing bill, Rauner on Aug.22 signed House Bill 5973 into law. HB 5973 prohibits the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation from barring former offenders from working in a variety of fields unless they’ve been convicted of a crime “directly related to the occupation.” The new law will help ex-offenders pursue productive careers as barbers, cosmetologists, hair braiders, estheticians, nail technicians, roofing business owners and funeral directors.
Rauner has made it a goal to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent come 2025.
“It’s the moral thing to do,” Rauner said before signing SB 42. “This is about justice and fairness and doing what’s right.”
To realize Rauner’s vision, lawmakers should also work to expand the availability of record sealing and expungement. For many rehabilitated ex-offenders, a judge clearing their names means the difference between gainful employment and reverting to bad habits.
For budgetary reasons, as well as for public safety and the sake of struggling ex-offenders and their families, rehabilitation should be the end goal of Illinois’ criminal-justice system. That means dismantling barriers to success for Decatur moms, Chicago dads and anyone in between who has made a bad choice in his or her past, but is ready and willing to move on.
“You should never give up on trying to move forward,” Creason said. “You should never accept being in poverty because officials feel like you shouldn’t be able to move forward.”