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New county legislation makes life easier for ex-felons

Thursday, December 06, 2007
Chicago Defender

Cook County Board of Commissioners President Todd Stroger has jumped on the 'ex-offender initiative' bandwagon. On November 28, County Board members voted to approve his Reentry Employment/Bid Incentive. Under the new initiative, construction companies willing to hire ex-offenders will have increased chances to contract county work. The work must be valued at $100,000 or more, and ex-offenders must complete between five and 15 percent of it.
Cook County Commissioner Earlean [cq] Collins, who voted to approve the program, said that it is the first time Stroger has sponsored such an initiative. "If we're going to give ex-offenders employment that provides more than minimum wage, it needs to be an industry where they can learn a trade," Collins said, "There's a new emphasis on employment opportunities for ex-offenders when they come out of the institution."
"Every year, some 20,000 ex-offenders are released to the streets of Chicago. I understand that people don't have much sympathy for former criminals. But as I've said many times, if we don't help them become productive members of society, they'll return to crime," the mayor said in a February press conference.
But Collins noted that legislators' shift towards prisoner re-entry is, in her opinion, a shift a way from prisoner rehabilitation. And she is adamant that one cannot work without the other.
"The emphasis has gone away from rehabilitation within prison, and towards employment outside. But a lot of that is wishful thinking. If persons have been in for a long time, and haven't learned a specific skill or trade when they get out, they will not succeed," she said.
In 2004, Illinois faced its highest recidivism rate ever, at 54.6%. According to the mayor's office, in 2006 over 50 percent of all released Illinois prisoners returned to the city of Chicago.
Those numbers were followed by a flurry of legislative and executive movements establishing ex-felon assistance programs.
In recent years, Mayor Richard Daley, Governor Rod Blagojevich and Congressman Danny Davis (D-7) have established programs facilitating ex-felons re-entries to the community.
Davis is one of the main architects of the Second Chance Act, which authorizes grants for transitional assistance to ex-offenders. The bill passed in the House this November.
In February 2005 Governor Blagojevich signed Senate Bill 3007, which allows certain criminal records, including Class 4 felony substance abuse and prostitution violations, to be sealed. The bill does have some provisions; offenders must have three to four years of good behavior, and employers can access the sealed records under certain circumstances.
And In May 2004, Mayor Daley formed the Mayoral Policy Caucus on Prisoner Reentry, which works in an advisory capacity with government, business, civic, faith, academic and social service organizations. According to the mayor's office, city funding of programs for ex-offenders has increased from $400,000 in 2004 to $2.6 million in 2007.

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