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Many scarlet letters need not be for life

As a one-time employment attorney who now works with individuals with criminal background issues, I regularly grapple with my clients’ struggles to find permanent employment.

Even when the crimes committed are decades old, these convictions are today’s ultimate scarlet letter.

OPINION

Even if you’ve never been arrested, you know that looking for work isn’t what it used to be if you lost your job when the economy tanked. Today, job applications must be filed online and criminal background checks are commonplace.

Today, an individual with a criminal background faces numerous obstacles to employment: statutory, company policy or personal prejudice.

Though Illinois employers are prohibited from asking someone if he or she has an arrest record, employers obtain this information when they do a criminal background check and routinely withdraw job offers based on this information. If people are denied employment because of an arrest record, you can imagine how difficult it is to find work with a conviction record.

That’s why several bills pending before the Illinois General Assembly (cited by the Sun-Times’s March 9th editorial, Ex-Offenders deserve Change to Make Pitch for Jobs), need our support.

Two bills would eliminate the lifetime ban to hiring anyone with certain convictions (e.g., drugs) by a park district or school district. A five-year bar would take its place. These bills recognize that people can change course and become law-abiding citizens. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy is the bills’ sponsor.

For certain ex-offenders who’ve returned to school in order to work in one of the many growing health care fields, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Iris Martinez is critical to realizing that career path.

Starting in 2013, the agency responsible for licensing health care workers began revoking and denying licenses to anyone who has been convicted of certain crimes, a forcible felony being one. When it drafted the rules to enforce the licensing bar, the agency devised its own definition of a forcible felony, opting for a definition more expansive than that found in the state’s Criminal Code. For example, the agency says that sex between two consenting 16-year-olds is a forcible felony. Under the Criminal Code this crime is a misdemeanor.

The pending bill would at least give individuals an opportunity to provide evidence of their rehabilitation and qualifications to become, for example, a licensed health care worker after a license denial or revocation.

Ninety-five percent of today’s prison population will return to our communities. We must find ways to help them enter the work force.  It is in the best interest of us all.

Ina R. Silvergleid is a Chicago lawyer and owner of A Bridge Forward LLC, http://www.abridgeforward.com.