Article after article, and report after report after report, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that our nation’s criminal system (justice intentionally omitted) fails many. It destroys budgets, communities, and lives while doing nothing to make us safer. Moreover, there is no shortage of ideas that would bring justice back to the criminal system. The issue is one of political will.
No elected official wants to be accused of being “soft on crime.” Unfortunately, the frightening result of that phenomenon is that, no matter how many communities, budgets and lives are destroyed by our failure to fix the system, there is never any true reform.
But, I’m not going to point fingers at elected officials, belabor the merits of a recent report, or relay my shock with a recent statistic. Instead, I will talk about what life is like for the men and women who are forced to endure poverty, hardship, and discrimination every day because of our inaction. Today, I will talk about one thing: hope.
What Hopelessness Looks Like
I serve individuals with criminal records. Among other things, I go to various community sites throughout the state and teach the men and women in attendance how to pursue various legal remedies that might help them overcome some of the lifetime barriers that prevent them and their children from having even the bare necessities in life.
Illinois has laws and policies currently on the books that, for some men and women with criminal records, impose lifetime bans to jobs, occupational licenses, or housing. These barriers clearly affect the ability of an individual with a conviction to obtain jobs and a stable income.
To be clear, the attendees understand that the only reason I am there is to assist them in overcoming these barriers. Yet, too often, before I can even discuss these remedies, men and women of all ages get up and walk out. This isn’t after they hear all the remedies available and determine their records render them ineligible, this is before I even get started. To me, there is no greater evidence of hopelessness than that.
When people leave, I stop the workshop and rush out to catch the person leaving. Invariably, when I ask people why they’re leaving, they say that they don’t think I can help them. When I insist that I can then I am often forced to answer questions like “do you know what it feels like to be rejected by employer after employer” or “landlord after landlord” because of a mistake made over a decade ago? Attendees ask me if I know what it is like to have to tell their sons and daughters that they “can’t go to a good school” like their friends, have any new clothes for the upcoming school year, or participate in a class trip because their parent's past mistake is keeping them from getting a decent job. After decades of rejection, indignity, and frustration, even strong, hard-working, and dedicated people begin to lose hope. The sort of hopelessness and detachment that results from these lifetime consequences increases the likelihood of criminal behavior (or reengaging in criminal behavior -called recidivism) and the traps generations in poverty.
Certificates Bring Hope
Thankfully, after admitting that I do not know what it is like to be rejected by every employer and landlord outright because of past mistakes, I can offer a flicker of hope in the form of remedies called “Certificates of Good Conduct” and “Certificates of Relief from Disability.” These certificates, which are available in some form in states like New York and are currently being introduced in D.C., allow men and women with convictions an opportunity to prove that they deserve to overcome some of these lifetime barriers to occupational and educational opportunities, while providing them with a tool to demonstrate their character to skeptical landlords. Certificates also provide employers who hire certificate holders with immunity from negligent hiring liability.
Now, thanks to the leadership of Rep. Esther Golar and Sen. Mattie Hunter, the support of Sen. Tom Johnson, and input from Rep. Dennis Reboletti, House Bill 5771 (H.B. 5771), which awaits the governor’s signature, would allow for even more men and women in Illinois to have that flicker of hope. Specifically, H.B. 5771 will eliminate the ban on petitioners with two convictions or more from applying for a Certificate of Good Conduct or Certificate of Relief from Disability, and lower the number of years a person must wait after they serve their time and pay their debt to society before they can try to get a Certificate of Good Conduct from three years to two years.
Although H.B. 5771 makes certificates available to more men and women with convictions, it does not make them available to everyone with a conviction. Certificates are not available to those who have committed class X felonies, any crimes requiring registration (e.g. sex crimes), or crimes where the victim suffered serious bodily injury. Moreover, certificates are not given away frivolously. An individual seeking a certificate must clearly and convincingly prove to a presiding criminal court judge that they deserve them during a hearing. Yes, all that makes certificates hard to get.
However, certificates also do something else—they give men and women with convictions a chance to be acknowledged for their hard work and rehabilitation. They give dedicated mothers a chance to tell their stories and be heard. They give fathers who have done the right thing a chance to be recognized for all the hard work they’ve put into keeping their lives on the right track and being exemplary parents. Finally, and most importantly, certificates give deserving men and women in our community a chance to hope again. And to the men and women whom I have to convince to stick around during my workshops, there is nothing more precious than that.
This blog post was coauthored by Justin Jacobs.