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Lightfoot unveils plan to help ex-offenders; for her, it’s a personal crusade

Thousands of ex-offenders return to Chicago every year after completing their sentences, but the transition back to society can be difficult. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley championed “Second Chance” programs in hopes that reducing sky-high unemployment in inner-city neighborhoods could reduce the number of repeat offenders and, thereby, reduce the bloodbath on Chicago streets.

But for Lori Lightfoot, the crusade is personal.

Her older brother — the one she was closest to and idolized most — spent much of his adult life in prison after robbing a bank in Nebraska and shooting a security guard.

“The last stint was 17 years in federal prison. He’s now a man in his early 60’s with a high school degree. Very little in the way of legitimate job skills. And he struggles every single day,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot said it has been “painful and challenging” for her brother to return, “with his record and history,” to the family home to Masillon, Ohio, where he still lives with their 90-year-old mother.

“Incarceration, I know firsthand, takes a significant toll on families like mine all across the city. People like my brother struggle every single day to return to our city once they’ve served their time. We’ve got to do better. We owe that … to returning citizens, to their families and to neighborhoods as a whole,” she said.

Lightfoot’s plan to “do better” calls for creating an “Office of Returning Citizens Affairs” to assist more than 11,000 ex-offenders who return to Chicago each year. The goal of the office will be to remove housing, lending and employment barriers that make it difficult for them to turn their lives around.

If Lightfoot is elected, the new office would be staffed by “professionals specializing in all aspects of workforce development, community outreach and case management,” according to a policy paper released by the Lightfoot campaign.

It would support community-based social service programs that assist ex-offenders struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues, and educate and re-train them for jobs in emerging industries. It also would craft “policies and legislation” to remove housing impediments.

Lightfoot unveiled the plan on the same day she won the endorsement of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

A news conference at the Safer Foundation featured Willie Wilson and Ja’Mal Green, former mayoral candidates who have endorsed Lightfoot in next week’s runoff.

Wilson has championed the cause of ex-offenders and has been known to take cash out of his own pocket to provide bail money to Cook County Jail inmates.

He introduced the candidate as “Mayor Lightfoot.”

“She will look out for all citizens without leaving out the needy,” Wilson said. “I’m very much appreciative of her — and there’s much more to come than this.”

Lightfoot noted that thousands of ex-offenders return to Chicago neighborhoods each year in a city where poor men and women of color are “disproportionately” arrested, punished and incarcerated.

“They’re literally coming back by the thousands every month into communities that are no better able to assist them than when they left. Many lack adequate education and job skills. And many struggle with substance abuse disorders, limited housing options and mental health issues,” she said.

“If we don’t provide support for this community, they’re gonna become yet another recidivism statistic and we’re not gonna be reducing crime in neighborhoods, either.”

Emanuel has brought “Second Chance” apprentice programs at the CTA to new heights.

Two years ago, after a 50 percent spike in homicides and shootings, Emanuel tried to fight crime with jobs by pushing through an incentive program that gives city construction contractors who hire and train ex-offenders a leg up on future city business.

Lightfoot’s plan is even more expansive, particularly on the housing front.

She wants the City Council to pass a “fair chance” ordinance that prohibits landlords from imposing blanket bans on renting to an individual based on his or her criminal record. Instead, landlords would be required to analyze a potential tenant’s conviction history to determine whether that person poses a threat to the community.

Lightfoot also wants to prohibit the Chicago Housing Authority from evicting residents based on their criminal records or denying housing to individuals “based solely on arrest and conviction records.”

Yet another portion of her plan calls for the city to “incentivize” landlords and property owners to lease to “people with arrest or criminal records” and encourage developers to build affordable housing and set aside “slots” for ex-offenders.

“If you don’t have a place to lay your head — if you don’t have a place to store your things, to take care of yourself, to get yourself out of the elements — people are gonna have to do something to help themselves,” Lightfoot said.