Austin lawmaker pushes for ex-cons to get second chance

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West Side resident Charles Austin can’t find a job. His problem? A crime he committed over two decades ago.

Austin, now 49, has a criminal record for felony drug charges and violation of a restraining order – both over 10 years old.

“Chicago is more discriminatory than other places,” said Austin, a lifelong Chicagoan.

Though Austin said he’s never spent a day in prison, his past follows him. The former drug dealer and gang member has been clean for over 10 years and worked in other states but says because of his record, it has been hard to make a new life in Illinois.

“It’s like a lifetime ban,” Austin said.

Austin and others ex-cons may soon catch a break if the Illinois General Assembly approves legislation that would allow them to seal non-violent convictions records from employers.

Last month, the Illinois House passed the bill, and it’s being reviewed by the Illinois Senate’s Criminal Law Committee.

The Criminal Identification Sealing Bill (HB3061) would amend the Criminal Identification Act for the first time since 2005 by adding three more felonies: possession of a controlled substance, prostitution and possession of cannabis. Current law allows those with felony convictions for retail theft, burglary and various drug offenses to apply to seal their records.

The records would be sealed to the public including employers who do criminal background checks, but law enforcement agencies could still access the records. The law would require the ex-offender to have a clean record for four years before being able to file for his record to be sealed with the local clerk of the court.

A hearing would be held, and law enforcement would have the opportunity to object to the sealing.

“The prosecutor’s job is to make sure the person serves their time. Once that time is served, the person has done their debt to society,” said chief sponsor Rep. La Shawn Ford.

Ford believes expanding the law will make it easier for ex-offenders to get a job.

The Chicago Democrat whose Austin district has one of the highest concentrations of ex-offenders in the state tried to pass the bill last year under HB5723, but the legislation never made it past the full House. Ford is confident this year’s bill has a good chance to pass in the Senate as it did in the House.

“I think with the amendments we have a good chance,” Ford said.

In 2010 and 2011, 13 states passed laws to expunge or seal low-level offenses after a certain number of years, and three states passed laws that limit employer liability when hiring former offenders. Unlike laws approved in other states, this bill does not limit the number of offenses that can be sealed, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Todd Belcore, attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said the bill could help many Illinoisans.

“I would comfortably say a few 100,000,” Belcore said.

Melissa Williams, executive director for Wiley Resource Center, a Lawndale-based legal support program, said she would like to see all non-violent offenses sealed.

Williams, who has worked on the bill since 2008, said the bill was modeled after the Cook County’s State Attorney’s Deferred Prosecution Program launched in 2011.

“If you’re going to give people the chance on the front end, why not give people who have been rehabilitated the same opportunities for the same offenses?” asked Williams.

The program allows low-level felonies offenders who have successfully completed a year-long program to get their charges dismissed.

Williams said the difference between the deferred prosecution program and the proposed bill is that HB3061 includes higher-level drug offenses. She said this provision is to offset the high number of people with drug offenses who can’t have their records sealed under the current law.

Advocates say the bill will help Illinois’ non-violent offenders who are often discriminated against while looking for a job after their release.

“We’re still up against the stigma of being convicted felons,” said Budder Jones, CEO of Inmates for Change, an advocacy group for ex-offenders. “There’s an invisible punishment for ex-offenders, even though we’ve paid our debt to society.”

The legislation has met opposition.

Mike Walters, executive director of Southwestern Illinois Employers Association, said the bill is harmful to employers because it would allow ex-offenders to keep this information secret.

“If someone was a criminal and went back to their old ways, as an employer you’d think, ‘I wish I would have known, I wouldn’t have hired them,’” Walters said.

He warns that such a law might prompt businesses to leave the state.

“Keep throwing out bills like this, and they will teeter off the edge and leave,” Walters said.

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