Removing barriers for ex-offenders: Occupational-licensing expansion bill passes Illinois Senate

Hilary Gowins

VP of comms @illinoispolicy. Likes dogs and basketball.

Hilary Gowins
May 27, 2016

Removing barriers for ex-offenders: Occupational-licensing expansion bill passes Illinois Senate

House Bill 5973 would help ex-offenders support themselves and their families by removing barriers for nonviolent ex-offenders who want to work in barbering, cosmetology, esthetics, hair braiding, nail services, roofing and funeral service.

A bill to give ex-offenders a chance at pursuing a meaningful career passed the Illinois Senate May 27.

House Bill 5973 would help ex-offenders support themselves and their families – and prevent repeat offenses. The bill removes barriers for nonviolent ex-offenders who want to work in barbering, cosmetology, esthetics, hair braiding, nail services, roofing and funeral service, unless the crime is directly related to the occupation.

Illinois state representatives passed the bill on an 80-31 vote on April 21. Because the bill was amended slightly, it moves back to the House of Representatives for a concurrence vote. If it passes, HB 5973 will go to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.

“This bill is a step in the right direction towards hope and success because it promotes expanded opportunity for those who would be low on hope and most likely impoverished,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago. “A felon or someone who has made mistakes who wants to follow a path to productive citizenship should not have to face unnecessary bureaucratic barriers.”

According to U.S. census data, 39 percent of Illinois’ adult population has a criminal record that could exclude them from jobs or licenses.

Everyone needs steady work, but for ex-offenders a job often means the difference between getting back on their feet and ending up back behind bars. Nearly 50 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of being released. On the other hand, a former offender who finds work within a year after release from prison has a 16 percent chance of recidivating, according to a study by the Safer Foundation.

It’s clear that a job is a critical part of the equation if the state wants more people to enter payrolls than end up back in prison.

Criminal record or not, Illinois requires 1 in 4 people in the workforce to get the state’s permission to work in the form of “occupational licenses.” At least 118 state-level licenses – including those for barbers, geologists and roofers – must or may not be granted to ex-offenders.

What’s worse, these barriers exist at a time when it’s hard for everyone to find work.

Though more people entered the Illinois workforce in April, the state’s unemployment rate went up to 6.6 percent, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. April marked the ninth month in a row that Illinois has suffered a net increase in unemployed people.

HB 5973 is an important first step to reform rules that keep qualified ex-offenders – who have served their sentences – out of work.

Illinois spends $1.4 billion a year on its prison system, or more than $21,000 just to hold one inmate. Over the next five years, the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council report calculated that state taxpayers will pay about $5.7 billion in costs related to ex-offenders returning to prison, if the recidivism rate stays the same. And each time a former offender recidivates and ends up back in the system, it costs Illinois taxpayers over $40,000 in costs related to arrests, court proceedings and incarceration alone – to say nothing of the tangible and intangible costs borne by victims and to society in lost economic activity.

It doesn’t make any sense – logically or financially.

HB 5973 is a good start, but Illinois will still have much work to do if it wants to meet Rauner’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

It’s time to focus on second chances instead of a life sentence served partly behind bars and then in years of crippling professional frustration.

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