Just reward: A 2017 comeback story for the ages

 
By Austin Berg
Guest columnist
Posted1/12/2018 1:00 AM
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  • Austin Berg

    Austin Berg

Lisa Creason's life changed overnight.

After working as a certified nursing assistant in Decatur for more than a decade, on Oct. 9, 2017, she walked into work as a registered nurse.

It was more than just a title change -- more than a pay raise, too. That day, a hard-fought educa-tion, a crushing loss, a legislative battle spanning two years and a shot at redemption all paid off.

Creason's dream had come true.

Her comeback story starts in the same place it ended, Decatur. More than 20 years ago as a teen-age single mother, Creason stole money from a sandwich shop cash register in order to feed her daughter. She spent one year in prison as a result.

But she never could have imagined the scarlet letter that crime would become.

Creason fought to rebuild her life over the next two decades. She started a nonprofit to combat violence in her community. She raised three children despite the death of her fiancé. She went back to school, and received a waiver from the state to work as a certified nursing assistant.

But she wanted more. Her earnings weren't enough for Creason to be completely independent, and she desperately needed to move her family to a safer part of town. She returned to school again to begin the process of becoming a registered nurse.

"I just want to go to work as a nurse, take care of my kids and get off of government assistance," Creason said at the time. "That's it."

After countless hours of work -- whether buried in books on the bleachers at her son's football games or burning the midnight oil with an early-morning shift the next day -- Creason graduated with an associate degree in applied science in nursing from Richland Community College.

She called her mom in tears.

"I will never forget coming home from the school and calling my mom and telling her I passed the final. I'm done," Creason said.

But that wasn't enough for the state. Despite her graduation, Creason was denied access to the test she needed to become a registered nurse due to the crime she committed decades earlier. She was crushed. But she fought back.

Creason's struggle took the form of Senate Bill 42. The bill would allow those with forcible felo-nies on their records (other than sexual offenses) to seek waivers from the state to obtain health care worker licenses, provided the convictions occurred more than five years prior to applying for a waiver. Creason drove to the Statehouse every day of legislative session for two years in sup-port of the bill, talking to anyone who would listen about the need to provide second chances for Illinoisans like her.

Against all odds, she succeeded.

After passing the General Assembly and receiving Gov. Bruce Rauner's signature, SB 42 took effect January 2017.

Free to take the test she needed, Creason hit the books yet again in preparation for the final chap-ter of her journey. She passed. Creason is now a registered nurse in the state of Illinois.

That brings us to 2018.

Illinois still puts up too many barriers for ex-offenders seeking work, driving up the odds of re-cidivism and costing taxpayers millions as a result. And even for those who haven't served a sen-tence, occupational licensing laws can be far too costly for Illinoisans trying to climb the econom-ic ladder.

A November 2017 report from the Institute for Justice showed Illinois imposes particularly harsh restrictions on a number of seemingly arbitrary occupations.

Sign language interpreters in Illinois are required to pay a $900 fee, complete over four years of education, and pass two exams to obtain a license despite the fact that 29 states don't license the profession at all. A cosmetologist must complete 350 days of educational training to practice in Illinois, but an EMT can be licensed after just 37.

Few individuals possess Creason's resilience. Most would have just given up. That's a problem, especially in a state with meager jobs growth and where too many find it in their best interest to leave for greener pastures.

State lawmakers would be wise to re-examine the barriers to second chances and first careers throughout the state.

Don't make the next Lisa Creason fight you for it.

Austin Berg, aberg@illinoispolicy.org, is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute.

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