By Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
Earlier this month, a law passed in Maryland that will give ex-felons the right to vote in upcoming elections. Advocates for those with convictions and the community as a whole view it as an important victory in the multifaceted battle to regain rights for citizens who have been convicted of crimes.
Illinois is one of 14 states plus the District of Columbia that restores voting rights to felons after serving the term of incarceration. The state has also been progressive in other areas, especially employment.
Last year, Illinois and the City of Chicago began enforcing a new law that prohibits prospective employers from doing a criminal background check until after a person has been hired. The city ordinance goes even two steps further. While state law only applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, the Chicago ordinance covers all private businesses in the city.
Additionally, where an employer “makes a decision not to hire an applicant based entirely or partially on the applicant’s criminal history,” the Chicago ordinance expressly requires the employer to “inform the applicant of this basis at the time he is informed of the decision.”
Illinois also offers tax incentives to businesses that hire people with criminal records. The Ex-Offenders Jobs Credit allows any employer that hires any number of “qualified ex-offenders” to apply for a credit amount equal to five percent of qualified wages paid or up to $600 per hire.
A “qualified ex-offender” must be formerly incarcerated from an Illinois adult corrections facility and was hired within the first year of his/her release from prison.
Across the country, over 100 cities, counties and states have enacted “ban the box” laws in some form. The initiatives have given at least one applicant Crusader spoke with a better chance at landing employment.
James Johnson was convicted of armed robbery in Iowa. After spending five years in prison, he moved to Illinois because he thought he would have a better chance of getting hired because people would not know about his record.
“When I came home, I put in over 100 job applications, and I never got called for an interview,” he said. “I knew why it was happening, and there was nothing I could do about it. But I learned some job skills in prison and some life techniques. And the one thing I learned was changing your environment can mean all the difference in the world. So as soon as my parole was over, I came to Illinois last March as I heard about the ‘no box law’ and I started getting interviews and was eventually hired.”
Johnson works as a nighttime maintenance engineer at a downtown high-rise building. He cleans offices used by Fortune 500 companies during the day. He works with a crew of five people every night. He said had it not been for “ban the box,” he would have not gotten the job.
“My current employer told me after I was hired what they found on my background check and I was like ‘Oh man, here we go’,” he began. “But, they told me as long as I walked a straight line and did my work; they wanted me to stay on. They gave me a second chance to work as a convicted thief, and I don’t take that lightly. I feel as if I owe it to them to do a good job because they allow me to send money back to the mother of my daughter in another state, and I was never able to do that while in prison.”
On a national level, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2012 recommended removing the conviction question from the job application.
The Obama Administration’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force also endorsed more modern hiring practices “which give applicants a fair chance and allows employers the opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits.”
On Feb. 9, the Maryland State Senate overrode a veto by Governor Larry Hogan to restore voting rights to felons on probation or parole, giving approximately 40,000 felons the right to vote. Ex-offenders in Maryland already had the right to vote after all terms of their sentences were met. Felons still in prison remain unable to vote. The new law makes Maryland the 14th state to allow felons to vote once out of prison.
Kemba Smith-Pradia is an advocate of restoring the rights of those who have been convicted of a crime. Crusader featured her book, Poster Child, last year when she praised President Obama for granting clemency to several Black men who received harsh federal sentences for convictions on low-level drug crimes.
Smith-Pradia currently is working in Virginia to reinstate their power to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office. She is also a strong proponent on making the “ban the box” initiative a national law.
“The ‘ban the box’ initiative, fighting for voting rights for felons and reforming our criminal justice system for fair sentencing are all related,” Smith-Pradia said. “It’s about fixing people, restoring families and rehabilitating our communities as a whole, which will make us a much better and stronger nation.”
Statistics from the Sentencing Project based out of Washington D.C. show over 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed a year after their release and those who do get jobs make 40 percent less pay a year.
The poverty result from this means that formerly incarcerated people problems extend to their families and communities who are already saddled with the high costs associated with having a family member locked up, according to the research. The family cost burden disproportionately falls on Black women, who are far more likely than their white counterparts to have a family member who is incarcerated.
This past November, President Obama instructed some federal employers to “ban the box” or delay inquiries into a job applicant’s incarceration history to curb discrimination and stigma. The proclamation was embraced by rights campaigners as a meaningful step towards eroding system-wide prejudice against the formerly incarcerated, but short of the deep change that is needed.
Smith-Pradia, who was a guest of Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard at the State of the Union last month, also believes the President stopped short of addressing the full problem of discrimination against people with past convictions in his speech.
“I wished he would have talked a minute longer about the need for criminal justice reform as it relates to drug laws and sentencing,” Smith-Pradia wrote on her blog at kembasmith.com.
“Placing criminal justice reform in the same sentence with prescription and heroin drug abuse implies that those are the focal points. However, I would’ve liked to have heard the President use stronger and specific language to address criminal justice reform. Problems such as over-criminalization and mass incarceration are some of the high priority issues that Congress needs to focus on over the next 5 to 10 years if they truly desire to right some of the wrongs within our broken criminal justice system.”