CHICAGO (AP) – Gov. Pat Quinn signed a series of bills Saturday that he said will help ex-offenders get jobs so they can stay out of prison and become productive members of society.
The Chicago Democrat said the measures also will give judges and prosecutors more options for sentencing nonviolent criminals. He noted more than half of Illinois inmates return to prison within 3 years of their release, many because they go back to committing crimes to provide for themselves or their families.
“Formerly incarcerated individuals shouldn’t face a life sentence of no job prospects and no opportunities to better themselves just because they have served time in prison,” Quinn said during a ceremony at a church on Chicago’s South Side. “These new laws will help them get back on their feet, contribute to their communities and keep one offense from becoming a life-long barrier.”
The measures also could help Quinn gain support among progressive voters in advance of a 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, also a Chicago Democrat, has said he’s running against Quinn. Four Republicans have announced they’re running: state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
The three bills signed into law Saturday were approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support.
One measure increases a tax credit for employers who hire qualified ex-offenders to $1,500 per employee. It previously was capped at $600. Employers may take the credit for up to 5 years. It applies to any ex-offender hired within 3 years of his or her release from prison.
Rep. Art Turner, a Chicago Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said he’s hopeful more employers will take advantage of the credit.
“Programs like this must be part of a creative approach to reducing recidivism and addressing the larger challenges of unemployment and violence in our communities,” Turner said.
Another bill creates a “second-chance probation” option for nonviolent offenders. It allows some convictions to be cleared from a person’s record after successful completion of at least 2 years of probation. It was sponsored by Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego, the Republican leader in the Illinois House, and Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat.
The other legislation ensures motions to seal or expunge a criminal record are heard in a timely manner and that court orders are delivered to the proper authorities.
Saturday’s bill signings come one day after Quinn signed legislation to add several non-violent felonies to the list of offenses for which records may sealed. The offenses include theft, retail theft, forgery, possession of burglary tools and possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance.
Previously, records were eligible to be sealed only for people convicted of prostitution or drug possession.
The measure also easily passed the Democrat-controlled Legislature, despite concerns from some critics that it would prevent employees from knowing whether they may be hiring someone with a criminal history.
The new law requires a person to wait 4 years from the termination of their last sentence before asking for their records to be sealed. They also would have to pass a drug test within 30 days before filing their petition to seal. If a judge grants the petition, the sealed records no longer can be seen by most potential employers or other members of the public, except by court order.
Law enforcement agencies, however, still have access, and if the person is later convicted of another crime the court may order his or her sealed records to be unsealed.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement that the legislation will help people who have been convicted of crimes to leave behind the stigma of a criminal conviction.
“When people have served their sentences, public safety and a sense of humanity demand that we give them the opportunities they need to stay out of prison — a genuine chance at an education, a job and a future,” Raoul said.
The lead sponsor in the Illinois House was Rep. LaShawn Ford, also a Chicago Democrat. Ford is under indictment for bank fraud but those charges were filed in federal court, so the legislation would not apply to him if he is convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.