The 2015 passage of HB 494 with bi-partisan support in the Illinois General Assembly constitutes a significant victory for people with criminal records and their families.
By reducing barriers to employment in Illinois schools, HB 494 promotes self-sufficiency—allowing hard-working men and women to apply for jobs in school districts for which they had been previously barred due to past mistakes and allows employers to determine for themselves whom they want to hire.
This victory culminates two years of work that began when a group of men and women who have criminal records in their backgrounds talked with us about the re-entry barriers they have experienced since completing their sentences. The most frequently named issue was absolute (life-time) bars to employment.
Robert said, "I’ve paid my debt to society. But I'm still paying. I can’t get a decent job." James agreed, "I don't want a handout. I just want a second chance." Charles added, "No one will hire me because I have a 20-year-old non-violent drug conviction." Teleza stated, "I was one of the first hired for the new Safe Passage program and one of the first fired because of my background."
In response to those testimonies, the Criminal Justice Community Leaders Coalition, of which Community Renewal Society and the FORCE (Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality) Project are members, organized a campaign to remove some of the life-time barriers to employment in the Illinois School Code for persons with felony records. Cabrini Green Legal Aid, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Heartland Alliance, and Shriver National Center on Poverty Law were active partners in this effort.
HB 494, which now awaits the governor’s signature, ensures that individuals with drug convictions will no longer be denied opportunities to work or volunteer in schools. Instead, local schools will be given the discretion to consider applicants with these records seven years after they complete their sentences. The legislation also removes a handful of misdemeanors from the list of disqualifying offenses: low-level cannabis possession and possession with intent (fewer than 10 grams) and offenses related to human trafficking and homelessness.
Passage of HB 494 would not have been successful without the tireless efforts of community leaders from CRS and FORCE, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid. We commend the leadership of Chief Sponsors, Representative Kelly Cassidy and Senator Patricia Van Pelt, and we give thanks to our criminal justice coalition partners who devoted substantial time and effort to this accomplishment.
In-district visits, calls and emails from CRS congregations and constituents, and their advocacy in Springfield, fueled our success in passing HB 494. Working together, we have won a significant victory that opens new employment opportunities for women and men who have changed their lives and want to make a contribution to their communities.
As FORCE leader Floyd said, “Now I can be an asset to my family and my community. I can be a change agent in local schools and do my part in encouraging and challenging students to follow their dreams.”
A companion bill, SB 42 (also HB 3212), calling for changes to the Health Care Worker Background Check Act, was not voted on before the May 31 adjournment of the General Assembly, but Chief Sponsor Representative Camille Lilly plans to call the bill in the fall veto session. Your advocacy will continue to be important as we work together to urge legislators to take another step in reducing barriers to employment for people with records.