Chicago can be a true ‘second chance’ city for returning residents

Providing job opportunities and resources for those returning home from prison or jail is deeply personal for me, Mayor Lori Lightfoot writes. Chicago now has a roadmap for this work.

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Throughout my life and career, as a sister of a formerly incarcerated individual, federal prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney, police reform expert and now as mayor, one of many truths I’ve learned about community safety is if we continue ignoring the issues faced by residents who are returning home from incarceration, we will never achieve long- lasting peace.

Over the last decade, more than 100,000 people returned from the Illinois Department of Corrections and Cook County Jail back to Chicago neighborhoods. Many of these individuals have no tools to help them reintegrate into communities, and return to the same set of circumstances — now with a conviction record, which gives rise to a new set of barriers to establishing a prosperous life and accessing basic needs like housing, health care and employment.

If we continue to ignore or create more of these barriers for returning residents, we will sow the seeds of our own dysfunction and continued harm. To put it more bluntly: If we deny returning residents access to the legitimate economy, we will perpetuate the cycle that keeps them in poverty and leads to increased risk of contact with the criminal legal system.

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It is imperative that we bolster our community safety and anti-poverty strategy by improving outcomes for these residents. Together, we must do better for the many thousands of individuals returning from incarceration, most of them Black and Latino, who have paid their debts to society.

This work is deeply personal for me. One of my brothers spent much of his adult life in and out of incarceration, including a 17-year stint in federal prison. Now, as an almost 67-year-old man, he faces daily barriers because of his past.

My brother’s challenges are reflected every single day in the lives of thousands of other people in this city who share his experience. We have a moral imperative to help these individuals, who, like us, only seek the opportunity to live a safe and prosperous life.

A roadmap for more opportunity

To address this challenge, two years ago I created a working group of people with direct experience in the criminal legal system — advocates, social service staff, community organizers and researchers — to determine how city government can best support our returning residents, their families and our communities that bear the brunt of a failed reentry system.

Thanks to their work, my administration gained a better grasp on the unique challenges facing our returning residents and created a “Roadmap for a Second Chance City” to guide city government in addressing them.

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We began to implement this roadmap with the 2022 budget, which earmarked $13 million for re-entry services, including legal assistance, workforce development, the creation of an Interagency Council and the hiring of Chicago’s first director of re-entry, Willette Benford.

Our administration, in partnership with other levels of government and community advocates, took actions to strengthen our fair hiring policies and programs for returning residents.

Just this year, I joined the Department of Human Resources to announce a reformed, nation-leading background check policy ensuring equitable and transparent opportunities for returning residents to access roughly 2,500 annual open city government jobs.

Further, the Department of Family and Support Services launched a request-for-proposals for a new $6.6 million employment and housing navigation support program for returning residents.

We collaborated with Ald. Walter Burnett and other sponsors on an ordinance, passed this month, to advance anti-discrimination protections in employment and other expanded economic opportunities.

And finally, in an effort to make these resources and opportunities widely known, we have created a new central hub on the city’s website for information related to support services:

When my brother finished serving his sentence, I know how many times he felt alone as door after door was closed in his face. The same goes for the thousands of formerly incarcerated people who return to Chicago and their families each year.

Through the working group, our report and other reentry efforts, I hope we’ve created an environment where people like my brother can feel like they have the support they need to fulfill their God-given potential and are not defined by a mistake for the rest of their lives.

I hope our city will continue to strive to support returning residents as they rejoin our communities. An investment in their future is an investment in the future of our city. When they have the opportunity to succeed, they enrich our communities and entire economy.

This April, Second Chance Month, it’s time for Chicago to become a true second chance city.

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot was elected in 2019.

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