Reforms give ex-prisoners a second chance

Prisons have been filled beyond capacity for so long that overcrowded prisons are now the norm in Illinois, and meaningful rehabilitation is a rarity. Policymakers can debate whether prisons exist for punishment, isolation, retribution or rehabilitation, but we must face the fact that - no matter why so many people are in prison - nearly every person sent to prison (98 percent) eventually will leave prison. Every week, hundreds of men and women leave Illinois prison cells and return to their home communities where they will have to follow parole requirements or be returned to prison. While prison may sound like an incentive to abide by parole, it is difficult for many returning prisoners.

Some 28,000 people leave Illinois prisons each year, and each one needs help. They must look for a job, continue with education, get treatment for any mental illness or addiction, have meetings with parole agents and submit a monthly written report on compliance. Otherwise, they return to prison. These conditions suggest we expect people leaving the criminal justice system to become responsible citizens.

With a public criminal record, much of that is hard to do, but help is on the way. Passed by a bipartisan coalition of Illinois lawmakers and recently signed into law by Gov. Rauner, a package of justice reform bills aims to give second chances to youth and adults who have been in the criminal justice system.

Some of the key improvements:

• Juvenile records are supposed to be private, but weak confidentiality protections have led to broad sharing of records and prevented young people from obtaining jobs, housing and education. By setting statutory penalties for unlawful sharing of juvenile records, the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act will help young people keep mistakes of their youth in their past.

• The process of expunging juvenile records has been so expensive and difficult that only a tiny fraction of young people have been able to take advantage of expungement laws allowing some records to be erased. The new Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act eases the expungement process for the thousands of young people merely arrested each year, most for nonviolent offenses and many never even charged with any offense but still saddled with an arrest record.

• For adults, another bill in the package expands sealing, removes some records from public view without destroying the ability of law enforcement to access the records. Safeguards are in place to protect public safety and require court approval.

• Because many jobs require a state license and those licenses often are denied due to the applicant's past criminal record, many men and women have been shut out of living wage work. One of the enacted bills creates a new license review process in more than 100 occupations and requires state license regulators to consider applicants' rehabilitation instead of focusing solely on their conviction record.

We expect people leaving our prisons to become responsible members of society. We can help them by making sure a past record is not a barrier for those who do not pose a threat to public safety. Based on this principle, the legislative changes will help make our communities safer and allow people to move on once they have paid their debt to society.

Legislative changes only set the stage. It takes people like you to extend the offer of a second chance. Please consider ways you can help returning citizens create brighter futures.

Victor Dickson is President of the Safer Foundation. Paula Wolff is Director of the Illinois Justice Project.

Paula Wolff
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