Chicago Public Schools employee Linda Kelly has never served time, but she knows how difficult it is for former inmates to get readjusted back into society upon their release. Kelly, a 10-year CPS employee, has seen how ex-offenders have remained short changed by the system.
Kelly was among the participants in Saturday’s ex-offender forum sponsored by 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts and Eyes on Austin. The forum’s focus was on services available in the community to ex-offenders. Representatives of the Illinois Prison Review Board and General Assembly also presented plans to advocate for easier expungement policies, housing and employment opportunities for ex-offenders. But these opportunities remain elusive for former inmates, said Kelly.
“In 1996, where I worked, there was a program in place to hire ex-offenders and put them to work in good jobs as janitors in high-schools,” she said. “But after working at their jobs for over six years, they were abruptly let go because of their prior records. I don’t know if there was a change in the law that I don’t know about but these were hard-working men with good jobs. They worked after school so they weren’t a threat to students. I just can not understand.”
Kelly has seen the fallacy with regard to expungement first hand. On average, roughly half-a-million men and women are released from prison or jail in the United States each year, according the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. prison population also exceeded 2 million individuals for the first time ever that year.
In Illinois, Cook County has received the highest number of former inmates. Austin, the city’s largest community with well over 100,000 residents, receives the majority of ex-offenders returning to Chicago.
This year, the U.S. Congress introduced the ‘Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act’ designed to allow certain criminal records to be expunged. The act has yet to be passed. Still, ex-offenders face certain obstacles when seeking employment.
“There is a tremendous labor force out their waiting to be employed and contribute to the economy, but because of a prior arrest they are greeted with hesitancy by employers,” said Leopoldo Lastre, chief deputy clerk for the Cook County Circuit Court, at Saturday’s forum. “They deserve the right to be employed.”
Echoing these sentiments, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown added, “I’m most concerned about the juveniles that are never given the proper information that would allow them to expunge their convictions,” she said. “They never receive that information so the conviction ends up effecting their lives years afterward whether it be applying for jobs or going to college.”
Ex-offenders also face other obstacles, many imposed by federal, state and local governments, including not being able to apply for student loans, public housing and other types of government assistance.
“I will agree with the idea that their needs to be government programs that assist ex-offenders find work,” said 29th Ward Ald. Isaac Carothers, “but I want to suggest that the government actually employ the recently released themselves. It would show how committed the state is to solving this problem.”
If such an idea ever came to pass, African-Americans, particularly men, would make up the largest workforce, based on the high numbers of those in prison. According to the Justice Department, roughly 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison. By comparison, 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group are incarcerated.
Many agreed Saturday that more services are needed. Saturday’s event included the distribution of information in regards to guidelines on filing for the sealing of criminal records, Eyes on Austin’s Holiday Job Fair on Nov. 19, and a short list of offenses that can be expunged – both in terms of juveniles and adults.
“If they are not allowed to work they are almost assured to be recidivist,” said forum co-sponsor Ald. Mitts. “We need to give them opportunities to earn a living. There are so many ways they can contribute to the communities they have negatively effected.”
To learn more about expungement and record sealing visit www.cookcountyclerkcourt.org. Eyes on Austin and Cease Fire both offer connections with employment and housing providers. EOA can be reached at 773.479.1569. Cease Fire can be reached at 773.722.0836/0712.