Mayor Lori Lightfoot removes city hiring barriers for ex-offenders

Lowering city hiring requirements to enable more formerly incarcerated people to find jobs could help slash crime. The mayor calls on the business community to follow suit.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is running for a second term as mayor, holds a brochure about community-based mental health clinics during a Leaders Network meeting in the Columbus Park Refectory in the Austin neighborhood, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has experienced first-hand the difficulties ex-convicts face in trying to reintegrate into communities: Her older brother was in federal prison for 17 years and has faced obstacles on the outside.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot told West Side ministers this week that Chicago cannot have a “real public safety plan” without supporting those “coming home” from prison and giving them legitimate job opportunities.

“Otherwise, the allure of the street is so intense,” she said.

On Thursday, Lightfoot delivered on that promise in a big way.

The mayor ordered changes to the city’s hiring and personnel policies that would remove impediments to hiring ex-offenders.

Background checks conducted before city hiring decisions are made can no longer consider:

—Convictions for cannabis consumption or possession or any other conduct that has since been de-criminalized.

—Arrests that did not lead to conviction and convictions from the criminal justice system.

—Convictions that have been dismissed, expunged or sealed or convictions more than seven years old for jobs in the mayor’s office and five years old for all other city departments.

So-called “fair chance hiring language” will be added to all city job postings so applicants know that having a prior arrest or conviction does not automatically make them ineligible for a city job.

Background checks will also be limited, with strict time lines for hiring departments so applicants “don’t get lost in the shuffle.”

Former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel 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 crime on Chicago streets.

But for 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.

Her working-class parents even considered mortgaging their Ohio home to raise bail money before her brother warned that, even if they did, he would jump bail.

His last stint was 17 years in federal prison. He’s now a man in his mid-60s with a high school degree and very little in the way of legitimate job skills. The mayor has said he “struggles every single day.”

That’s why the mayor is hoping that, now that Chicago’s largest employer is “leading by example,” she can pressure the private sector to do the same.

“The one thing I hear on a regular basis — from my own brother’s experience to talking to folks in the re-entry world to street outreach folks — is how easy it is for people who are returning home to feel like they have no hope. That they have no opportunity. That they can’t get jobs. They can’t get access to care,” Lightfoot said.

“When you’re discouraged and you don’t have hope, you get desperate and you get fearful, and bad things happen.”

Noting that the city fills 2,500 jobs every year, the mayor said, “We need to fill those jobs and open them to all residents, including returning citizens.”

“I want to challenge the private sector to join us. Open up your opportunities as well. People who want to work should be able to work in our city. There shouldn’t be unnecessary, artificial barriers for people to be able to work,” she said.

“Every industry I know is hungry for applicants. Open up the opportunities just like we are doing today. Bring these folks home. Give them an opportunity for a good-paying job with benefits. This is how we keep people off the street, we stop the pipeline to the illegal economy, and we build our city to be fair and more equitable than ever before.”

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