Criminal-justice reform can only be successful if policymakers work to remove barriers to employment and work.
Most people expect that a criminal offender will have to serve some time in prison, both as punishment and as a means to protect public safety. But too often, people overlook the fact that the criminal-justice system in Illinois continues to punish ex-offenders who’ve already completed their prison sentences and parole – who’ve already repaid their “debt to society.” Many former offenders are locked out of jobs and stable employment even after they’ve completed their sentences.
The single biggest factor in reducing crime and poverty in communities throughout the state is employment. For criminal-justice reform to be successful, Illinois must figure out how to promote job opportunities for former offenders. The more barriers there are to work and employment, the more likely it is that ex-offenders will resort to returning to crime.
Here are three policy changes that Illinois politicians should consider in 2016.
1. Expand sealing eligibility
In 2011, 65 million adults, or nearly 21 percent of the country at the time, had some form of a criminal record, according to a paper published by the National Employment Law Project. Having a criminal record often means severely diminished job prospects for an ex-offender trying to re-enter the workforce. A study from Northwestern University showed that just 17 percent of white ex-offenders and only 5 percent of black ex-offenders were contacted for interviews after applying for jobs, compared with 34 percent of white applicants and 14 percent of black applicants without criminal records.
To better balance the need to protect public safety with the need to rehabilitate ex-offenders so they can be productive members of society, Illinois needs a sensible policy on sealing criminal records. Sealing is a process by which a former criminal offender can apply to have his or her record closed to most viewers, removing one of the most significant barriers to employment for ex-offenders who have repaid their debt to society and will re-enter after serving their time. For an ex-offender to have his or her record sealed, he or she must make it through an adversarial petitioning process in the courts. Even if a court approves a petitioner’s request to have his or her record sealed, law enforcement and certain employers can still see sealed records.
Sealing is a much more business-friendly alternative to “ban the box,” which prohibits employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records at the beginning steps of the hiring process and imposes regulatory and reporting burdens on businesses.
Right now, sealing already exists for a limited number of nonviolent class 3 and 4 offenses, but lawmakers could expanded it so that all nonviolent offenders have the right to apply for sealing and to present their cases to a judge when they complete their prison sentences and parole, if applicable.
2. Business liability reform
Many employers are willing to hire former offenders, but are concerned about the possibility of a negligent hiring lawsuit if such an employee commits an offense in the future. To help combat this, Illinois should take steps to limit negligent hiring liability so that simply hiring someone with a record is not grounds for a lawsuit. Then business owners will be able to hire more confidently, without concern that giving former offenders a chance will put their businesses at risk. At the same time, responsibility for any new offense should lie with the person directly responsible for that offense, not others.
3. Occupational licensing reform
No one can be a productive, contributing member of society without the ability to find work and put food on the table. This is especially true for ex-offenders when they leave prison. Employers can be reluctant to hire someone if they have reason to think – rightly or wrongly – that a job applicant could be untrustworthy or would somehow put customers at risk.
But Illinois is making this problem worse than it needs to be: The state either can or must restrict anyone with a criminal record from obtaining at least 118 different occupational and business licenses. Counties and localities often put up additional barriers of their own. The state may deny licensure to an ex-offender for professions such as barber, cosmetologist, dance-hall operator, geologist, dietitian, roofer and sports agent.
These restrictions are counterproductive both because they punish people for conduct already punished through prison terms and parole, and because they make it more difficult for former offenders to support themselves – making a return to crime more likely.
The presumption should be that anyone can work in a field where he or she can find a job. There may be good reason for case-by-case license denials; however, most of the licensing restrictions do not have such a basis, or any realistic risks prompting them.