Walter Boyd, director of PCG’s criminal justice program, and I often recall
our first experiences in Springfield together. Our purpose was to gain support
for measures that would give a fair chance to ex-offenders trying to rebuild
their lives upon leaving prison.

When we brought
up the topic with legislators – even as recently as five years ago – very often
the officials we were talking to would begin to look like they were on the verge
of a stroke. They had visions of what might happen in their next primary if
they appeared “soft on crime.”

But attitudes
can change. It is wonderful to report that just last week Walter Boyd testified
in support of HB 2475,
a bill PCG introduced that would add ex-offenders to the Illinois Human Rights
Act. The legislation received a favorable vote to the floor of the House.

With some exceptions,
ex-offenders would be protected against discrimination in seeking employment
if they had not had encounters with the law for seven years after release. The
bill does not require employers to hire people with criminal histories, but
it does call for “individualized determinations” that take into account an individual’s
qualifications and history.

The legislation,
of course, faces opposition. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is concerned
about frivolous law suits, and about the burden of having to demonstrate that
potential employers have dealt fairly with the entire applicant pool for a particular

But if the courts
have figured out how to deal with alleged discrimination due to age, gender,
or race, can’t they do so with ex-offenders, too?

What would this
bill accomplish? It is unlikely that large numbers of ex-offenders will gain
jobs through court action. But in giving them human rights, the bill will contribute
to a shift in perception.

It will prompt
an awareness that all who have earned it deserve the chance to re-build their
lives. It will affirm that to deny the possibility of full citizenship to such
individuals for the rest of their lives is fundamentally wrong. Consider the
alternative – that regardless of what crime a person may have committed, he
or she will never have a chance of redemption. Who among us has never needed
a second chance?

Over 84 percent
of those in Illinois prisons have been convicted of non-violent offenses, including
22 percent for the use or possession of small amounts of drugs. There are currently
12 million ex-felons in the United States, comprising about 8% of the working-age
population. Should they be relegated to menial jobs, if any, for the rest of
their lives?

Through HB 2475
we have the chance to bring forgiveness and inclusion to a population that too
often is excluded and without hope. Please help pass this legislation by calling
your representative
in Springfield today.

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