Quick Hit Michael Sandler Tuesday September 3rd, 2013, 2:30pm

Second Chance Summit Offers Hope to Ex-Offenders

Rita Allison felt hopeless.

Allison admits that she made some bad choices in her early 20’s, including committing felony retail theft. The offense ultimately led to a conviction, and Allison, now 55, says she has been unable to find steady employment since then due to her criminal record. 

The Bronzeville resident had been employed in the medical records field for years. But Allison said she got that job based on her resume, and didn’t have to provide a criminal history. However, things began to change for her in 2009, when she began looking for new work. Allison told Progress Illinois she was continually passed over for a number of jobs due to her felony record. Her husband, a veteran, receives a pension, but Allison says it isn’t enough to survive. As a result, she has gone without additional income for a period of time, causing her, Allison says, to lose her apartment.

But an upcoming event in Chicago might help Allison and others in her position. The Second Chance Summit, being held September 7 at the University of Illinois-Chicago Forum, will educate those with non-violent class three or four felony convictions on how to get the crimes expunged from their records. Legal volunteers from organizations including the Wiley Resource Center and Cabrini Green Legal Aid will provide free guidance, and members from the Urban Weatherization Initiative, an organization that trains Illinois residents to work in the green industry, will also be on hand to sign up participants for paid trainings.

The summit is directly related to the record sealing bill (HB 3061) Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law last month. The law, sponsored by State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), expands the number of class three and four non-violent felonies that are eligible for record sealing. Additionally, only certain agencies, like law enforcement and schools, would have access to the criminal records, making it easier for offenders to gain employment. However, to be eligible for a record sealing, the offender must have a clean record for four years after their sentencing date.

With the law set to take effect January 1, Ford said he wants to see other legislators in Illinois hold Second Chance Summits, especially those from districts in bigger cities like Rockford and Peoria. The lawmaker says he hopes to see ex-offenders become less reliant on taxpayers for support, and wants to see them become employable. To that end, Ford also said Summit attendees will get instruction on how to obtain a state ID card, which is another hindrance in finding employment. Overall, Ford said the event—  and the new law — is about finding a better way for ex-offenders.

“Every time I hear about an individual who was on probation or incarcerated and commits a crime, it’s sort of like a dagger in my stomach. It sets the efforts back,” he said. 

The effort to keep ex-offenders on the straight-and-narrow has formed unique allegiances. Melissa Williams, executive director of the Wiley Resource Center and the person Ford credits with planting the seed for the new law, said an unexpected partner will make an appearance at the summit: the State’s Attorney’s office. Williams said representatives from the State’s Attorney office will be instructing attendees on how to begin the process of filing for a record sealing.

Williams added that she would have liked to have seen class two non-violent convictions also included in the law, but that was a tough sell to state legislators. Williams hopes to collect data in the next year that will demonstrate how the new law has put ex-offenders to work, with hopes that such data will help more felonies be added to the record sealing list.

But one state senator said the current list is as far as he’s willing to go. State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Westmont) said he wouldn’t support the inclusion of class two felonies. But Dillard did vote in favor of HB3061, and said as a Christian, he believes in giving non-violent offenders a second chance. Dillard, a GOP candidate for governor, added that the bill’s support by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA) also helped sway him to vote in favor of the legislation. He said if IRMA hadn’t supported the bill, he wouldn’t have, either.

“They’re the ones that have to do the employing. So if an Illinois employer objects to this law, then I have issues with it,” Dillard said. “I’m not going to force these people to hire these individuals.”

As for the upcoming summit, Allison will be assisting Williams and speaking to attendees. She said people mired in a life of crime should find another way.

“It destroys your life,” she said.  

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