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Ex-offenders deserve chance to find different paths

Sunday, August 07, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by MARY MITCHELL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

When George Jones applied for a job with Total Facility Maintenance Co. three years ago, he answered "No" to the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

That was a lie.

Like most ex-offenders, Jones rationalized his lie. After all, it wasn't like he had killed someone. He had two cases: one for possessing marijuana that was thrown out, and one for possessing heroin, for which he was given probation. Both cases happened more than two decades ago.

Since then, Jones, 66, hasn't been charged with any crimes.

But two weeks ago, he was fired from his janitorial job at Chicago Public Schools after a background check uncovered the old charges. On Thursday, Jones went to a hearing with CPS officials to plead his case. It didn't do any good.

Fired over false info on job application

"It was just a bunch of s - - -," Jones told me. "I'm sorry for using that language, but it might as well have been no hearing."

Jones was one of about 20 people who were fired by a private company that provides janitorial services to hundreds of public schools when new background checks revealed the workers lied about criminal charges. According to a CPS spokesman, the workers were terminated because they falsified their job applications.

"It happened 26 years ago," Jones explained to me. "One case was thrown out, and I got probation for the other. But I said no [on the application]. I made a mistake years ago, and I'm continuing to be punished for it."

Jones said he offered to prove he had changed his life, but it didn't help.

"I told them I'll take a drop right now," he said. "Every one of the people who went to the hearing didn't get their jobs back. Basically, you didn't need a hearing."

Catch-22

I don't expect the Board of Education to change its policy, mainly because we are talking about a work environment that involves children. And it's much easier for this bureaucracy to issue a blanket edict than it is for its administrators to evaluate these fired employees on a case-by-case basis.

Still, common sense should tell us that ex-offenders can't start a new life if they are going to be dogged by their criminal past. At the very least, ex-offenders who have served their time should have the chance to hold onto a low-wage job.

Where is our compassion?

Most of us should understand why people like Jones would answer "No" when a potential employer asks if they've ever been convicted of a crime. But we've put ex-offenders in a Catch-22. You know if an ex-convict answers "Yes" there's a good chance the application would end up in the trash.

Given that tens of thousands of people are expected to get out of prison and return to Chicago neighborhoods, we can either make it easy for them to transition back into the community by at least letting them have gainful employment or face the consequences.

Records can be expunged

What are the consequences?

More idle men standing on the corners looking for a handout or selling drugs. More domestic violence as frustrated, broke and unemployed people crack under the stress. More crime.

I believe a lot of people can see that shackling a person to a messed-up past is cruel. Still, few people are willing to speak out publicly about the unfairness posed by this social policy. Even people at the Chicago Public Schools who are outraged over the firings are afraid to say anything publicly to support these workers.

So it is up to ex-offenders to change the game.

Jones acknowledged that he was unaware that he was eligible to have his criminal records expunged.

Illinois legislators, especially state Rep. Constance A. Howard (D-Chicago) worked diligently to pass a law that would allow certain arrests, supervisions and convictions to be expunged or sealed. People who were convicted of minor drug possession cases in the state of Illinois can have their slates wiped clean.

Law could change lives

Under the new law that went into effect on June 1, anyone who wants to have a Class 4 felony drug possession case sealed can do so by petitioning the court and passing a drug test. Obviously, this is a law that could help thousands of ex-offenders change their lives.

But it can't help ex-convicts if they don't use it. To find out which convictions can be expunged or sealed, go to www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org. The clerk's site lists everything you will need to expunge or seal criminal records, including the cost for filing forms ($60). Ex-offenders who don't have access to the Internet can get the forms needed for expungement by going to the Cook County Circuit Clerk of the Court, Richard J. Daley Center, Room 1001, 50 W. Washington.

Frankly, ex-offenders can't expect a lot of sympathy from a public that is fed up with crime. But armed with this new law, ex-offenders don't have to let a shady past put them back on a path to a dark future.



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