The Case for Second Chances

On March 8, 2013, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that total employment increased by 236,000 in February and the unemployment rate edged down to 7.7 per cent.

That’s good news in many communities across the country, but it won’t change things very much for Floyd because he has a felony record.

Floyd knows from experience that finding a job is one of the greatest challenges facing people with criminal convictions. He tells us, “I’m able to be a student right now, but I have great concern about graduating—that when I do, there may not be a job waiting for me because of my background.”

Based on interviews with the top 100 companies in the nation, the Society for Human Resources Management reported that 74 per cent of employers said that a non-violent felony conviction is very influential in their decision not to hire individuals with records. Floyd, like many others, has paid his debt to society, but now he’s still serving a sentence—a sentence created by an unforgiving society, that puts up barriers that deny formerly-incarcerated persons access to the everyday opportunities of a decent job and a place to live.

PCG and CRS have worked for a number of years to help the Floyds of our communities, through individual advocacy and, now, through CRS’ F.O.R.C.E. (Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality) project. We have also worked on legislation that permits the sealing of records for non-violent offenders who completed their sentences and have had no further convictions during a four-year period. We advocated for the passage of the first sealing bill in 2005, and now we are working to expand the number of non-violent offenses that can be sealed.

Sealing non-violent records helps individuals with backgrounds to establish themselves as productive members of society. The 2005 Safer Foundation Recidivism Study found that full-time employment reduces the likelihood that an ex-offender will return to prison. Forty-seven per cent of the formerly-incarcerated returned to prison when they did not have full-time employment after incarceration, but the recidivism rate for those with full-time employment was a much-lower eight per cent.

Floyd is asking for a second chance. The process is adversarial, not automatic, and law enforcement officers may object to the motion to seal at any time in the process. Law enforcement, along with schools, health care organizations, financial institutions, among others, would continue to have access to the sealed records.

Thirty-eight legislators have signed onto HB 3061, sponsored by Representative LaShawn Ford, but regardless there is push-back. Some legislators don’t want to appear soft on crime while others seem to believe that a difficult, nearly impossible, re-entry experience is what persons with records have “earned.”

Really?

In this holy season, should we not be a people of forgiveness and redemption? Surely that’s the example Jesus set before us when he promised a condemned thief a place in Paradise and then prayed for his executioners to be forgiven. Even Peter’s denial, not once, but three times, in the hours before the crucifixion did not go un-forgiven. The resurrected Christ met the disgraced denier on the beach to give Peter a second chance.

A representative of a suburban district recently told me about a young woman in the district who had a fourteen-year-old forgery conviction. She has turned her life around and is now attending nursing school. However, her felony record bars this young woman from taking her clinicals. The legislator asked, “Would this bill help my constituent?”

The answer is yes.

HB 3061 would give her, Floyd and 3.9 million Illinois ex-offenders a second chance.

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