The message of the Jan. 18 press conference held by state Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) and community organizations that work with ex-offenders was curt and uncompromising.
Under Illinois law, once voters served their prison time, they are eligible to vote. However, many of them don't realize it and, as the speakers noted, political candidates on both sides of the aisle don't usually try to reach out to them, let alone find out what they want. And what they want is a change in laws that would make it easier for them to reintegrate back into society and rebuild their lives.
The organizations will try to reach out to as many of ex-offenders as possible and try to get them to register to vote. If current political candidates aren't interested in addressing the needs of ex-offenders, then advocates will throw their support behind candidates that do.
While many people assume that serving prison time automatically makes a person ineligible for voting, that is only true in some states. Maine and Vermont have no restrictions whatsoever. Fourteen states, including Illinois, don't allow felons to vote while they serve their time, but they do allow them to vote once they've completed their sentences.
As Ford noted in the press release issued ahead of the conference, if people served their times and are determined to stay on the straight and narrow, they face a number of obstacles.
"A criminal background in America is a disability that prevents citizens from living a productive life in America," he stated. "Even those who were wrongfully convicted have to carry the burden of a negative image on their shoulders. This is causing us to see a repeated cycle in our prison system and communities. We must not turn our backs and pretend this is not an issue with our family, friends and community."
A 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 86 percent of employers use criminal background checks on at least some candidates, while 69 percent check all candidates. In a similar 2010 survey by the same group, 31 percent of respondents said an arrest without conviction would at least be "somewhat influential" in their hiring decision.
If ex-offenders have limited opportunities to work, Ford said, it shouldn't be surprising that so many of them wind up re-offending and going back to prison. That, in turn, affects the community — through more violence more crime and more unemployment.
"We're just asking that the government come up with more programs to rehabilitate ex-offenders instead of just incarcerating them," Ford said. "[For example], most of the offenders are addicted to some type of drug. I believe that if the governor can put programs in there to get them clean, it will reduce recidivism."
During the Jan. 18 conference, which was held at Herb's Barbershop, 5116 W Chicago Ave., Ford said that it was an urgent issue that needed to be addressed — especially given the controversy over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), a policy established by then-President Barack Obama in June 2012 to provide certain legal protections for foreign citizens who arrived in United States as minors.
The policy was rescinded by President Donald Trump last year. Since then, Democratic congressmen have threatened not to vote on a budget extension unless Congress enshrines DACA into law.
"[With] DACA, illegal immigrants have rights in America, but we have American citizens who lost [full rights]," Ford said.
The state representative was quick to add that he was a progressive Democrat who supported DACA, but explained that there should be as much urgency about helping U.S. citizens as well.
"All of the [Illinois] governor candidates need to make a commitment that they will make it [their] priority to tear down barriers to re-entering the community," Ford said, adding that he wants state and federal legislators to pass laws that allow ex-offenders who haven't gotten into trouble with the law for a certain period of time to apply to have their criminal record completely removed.
George Williams, a member of Congressman Danny K. Davis's (7th) reentry advisory committee, said that, under the current system, ex-offenders don't really have a chance to live honest, productive lives.
"The question is, at what point in time do men and women stop serving time?" he said.
Quiwana Bell, the Westside Health Authority's chief operating officer, mentioned that her organization offers re-entry programs and that the service is in high demand.
"Re-entry [assistance] is a smart thing to do for sustainable communities," she said. "Those are our fathers, those are our husbands, and we need them working. The ex-offenders, when they come back, they're just looking for opportunity [but] they are still being criminalized."
Anthony Laury, the director of policy and advocacy at Safer Foundation, an organization that works to reduce recidivism, said that, growing up with a father who had a criminal record, he knew first-hand how that limited job opportunities. In much of the West Side, he added, job opportunities are already scarce as it is, which only makes the situation worse.
Laury said that one of the reasons why employees hesitate to hire ex-offenders is that they worry that they may be sued if a crime occurs in their business. The Safer Foundation is pushing for changes in state law that would limit residents' ability to sue on the grounds that, by hiring an ex-offender, they created a dangerous environment. This would only apply in a situation where an ex-offender served time for non-violent crimes.
Raynell Vaughn, Program Coordinator at the Haymarket Center, said that he's seen first-hand jobs can improve ex-offenders' lives.
"There's nothing more important to these men than to be able to take care of themselves, to be able to take care of the families, to be able to take care of their children," he said. "The way they interact with their families, the way they interact with their children changes."
Mark Carter, a founding member of Voice Of The Ex-Offender (VOTE), echoed Ford's points about DACA, adding that the immigrants in question aren't U.S. citizens, so they can't vote in US elections. Ex-offenders, on the other hand, can. By registering them, Carter said, his organization hopes to show elected officials that ex-offenders are a constituency whose voice matters.
"We got to jail, serve our time, and they're treating us like we got life," he said. "We don't need representatives who don't respect us."
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