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Editorial: Let ex-offenders make a pitch for a job

If you’re trying to turn your life around, a decent job is everything.

But a wave of zero-tolerance laws enacted in Illinois in recent years has made that awfully tough, even for people who have kept their nose clean for many years. Several bills pending in Springfield, which we urge the Legislature to get behind, would do something about that, giving ex-offenders a way to at least appeal a state ban on their being hired for certain jobs.

EDITORIAL

As the law in Illinois now stands, a person convicted of a forcible felony is barred from a wide range of medical and therapy jobs that require a state license, including dentist, dental hygienist, nurse, occupational therapist or assistant, optometrist, pharmacist, physical therapist or assistant, physician assistant, psychologist, social worker, podiatrist and speech pathologist.

Young people with such criminal records who want to go into one of those fields are shut out. If they’ve picked up a college or trade school degree in one of those fields, it’s a worthless. They are barred for life from that kind of work.

But a bill pending in the state Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Iris Martinez, would create an appeal process for getting a state license. The ex-offender would be given a chance to make the case that he is now leading a law-abiding and honorable life and would be of no danger to anybody. Nobody would have to hire him, of course, but he could make a pitch for a license.

Clearly, it’s in the public interest for the state to continue to deny professional licenses to ex-offenders who might pose a real threat — even years or decades later — to patients and clients. But not all felons or felonies are equal, especially since the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation appears to take a questionably wide view of what constitutes a forcible felony. Should a person convicted of pushing a police officer when he was 18, for example, be forever denied a job as a social worker or speech pathologist?

If the punishment is supposed to fit the crime, that doesn’t fit.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s criminal justice reform agenda is built around the goal of moving more offenders out of jails and prisons and into productive lives. Widening the range of job opportunities is an essential part of that. Myriad studies and common sense tell us that people who have committed a crime are much less likely to do so again if they have structured lives to return to, beginning with a job. And not just for the paycheck. A job is a way a person knows he belongs.

Two related bills in Springfield, sponsored by State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, would ease restrictions on employment with schools and parks, a reform that also has merit. At the moment, for example, anyone with a drug conviction is barred forever from working even as a maintenance person in a school. It’s one of those rules that hurt poor people most because they can’t hire the expensive lawyers who know how to keep a drug rap off a permanent record.

The zero-tolerance law for health care workers was enacted in 2011 after several highly publicized incidents of doctors sexually abusing sedated patients. The General Assembly responded by prohibiting anyone convicted of a sex offense, battery against a patient or a forcible felony from holding a health care worker license. But “forcible felony” can mean many things, not all equally outrageous. It includes physical contact “of an insulting or provoking nature” against a police officer, a person over the age of 60, a teacher, or a school employee.

A recent New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that about a third of nonworking men age 25 to 54 have criminal records. The rapid proliferation of online databases makes those records easily accessible for employers. If more of these men — and women — can find a place in the legitimate working world, without compromising public safety, society as a whole will be better for it.