U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7th) is among a range of supporters of a criminal justice reform plan proposed by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp.
“I think it’s an excellent plan that addresses many of the same issues I have been talking about for some time now,” Davis told the Austin Weekly News. “This plan offers solutions to real life situations and longtime barriers that make it hard for ex-offenders to get back on their feet.”
The plan calls for reducing incarceration, reforming juvenile justice, supporting successful re-entry and improving police and community relations.
The plan has also garnered the support of 24 former assistant U.S. attorneys.
“Andrea understands that to improve public safety, we must refocus our scarce resources on policies that can and will make a difference,” said Scott Lassar, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
“From her work as a state and federal prosecutor, she has experience understanding the kinds of laws we need to make that a reality.”
Zopp, who in 1992 became the first woman and black to be appointed first assistant in the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, said her goal is to ensure that ex-offenders are afforded the same opportunities as anyone else.
“A felony conviction hinders a person’s ability to find gainful employment, housing and even education assistance in the form of financial aid,” Zopp said during a Nov. 19 round table discussion with a group of criminal justice advocates on the South Side.
“We have to reduce the levels of people being incarcerated because we are incarnating way too many people. We need to find a pathway to reform our criminal justice system, especially our juvenile system.”
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-8th) and state Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-15th), who are also running to be the Democratic candidate to unseat sitting U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), said they plan to unveil their criminal justice reform plan by the end of this year. Kirk, who is seeking re-election, said he already has a reform plan in place.
Ex-offenders like Andre Jackson, 60, said a lack of job opportunities often cause people to become repeat offenders.
“After I served my time in prison and was released, no one would hire me because of my background. It’s easy to get discouraged when doors are being slammed in your face left and right,” said Jackson, who grew on the Far South Side, but now lives in the South Loop.
In 2007, Jackson said he was released from prison after spending 10 years for possession of a controlled substance.
“The doors are still being closed on me because I have a background. Washington needs to pass a bill that would allow those with non-violent felonies to have it sealed or expunged automatically,” added Jackson.
Davis said he would support legislation that would make expungements automatic for non-violent felony convictions.
“Every seven years, information on your credit report is automatically removed. Why can’t it be the same for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies? After so long it should automatically be removed from your criminal record,” said Davis
The Safer Foundation is a West Side nonprofit that assists ex-offenders with job readiness and expungement, one of the many free services it provides, according to Anthony Lowery, the organization’s director of policy and advocacy. Lowery attended the round table.
“You have to pay for expungements, but it’s hard to do without a job,” explained Lowery, an ex-offender himself. “Twenty-five years ago, I was convicted for manufacturing a controlled substance. It took me two years to find a job after my conviction.”
Reaching youths at an early age is key to helping them stay on track, said Zopp.
“We have to get these kids before they get to high school, because by then it’s hard to turn them around,” she said. “The focus needs to be on making our neighborhood schools better and to give them the resources needed to help their students.”
As a former Chicago School Board member, Zopp, a Beverly resident, voted to close 50 underperforming public schools in 2013, a decision she does not regret.
“The school closings was a difficult decision. But the fact is that over 90 percent of the students we moved to new schools are in a better learning environment today,” contends Zopp.
Zopp also supported the hiring of former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who resigned in June and later plead guilty in federal court to wire fraud after she recommend CPS award a $20 million contract to her former employer, SUPES, in exchange for a kickback.
“Evidence about her rigging contracts when she worked in Detroit was not made available by the FBI at the time CPS hired her. But to say I am disappointed by her actions is an understatement,” said Zopp.
“I am outraged by her conduct and dishonesty. She came to us with a strong reputation in urban education and helped us settle the teacher’s strike and that’s why I supported her being elevated to CEO [from chief education officer].”
In addition to her criminal justice reform plan, Zopp also emphasized the need for increased economic development in areas like Austin.
“We have to create some economic growth in Austin that will help the residents,” she said. “By doing so it creates more jobs and that’s what I see is the greatest need for that community.”