Removing bars to employment for people with records

CCH Policy Specialist Jonathan Holmes contributed this piece to the blog published by Clergy for a New Drug Policy

People with criminal records face significant barriers in society. A charge or conviction can impact one’s ability to find housing, employment, and stability. The War on Drugs and mass incarceration policies have had a detrimental impact on the lives of many who are seeking to turn their lives around, but because of past records, are unable to provide for their families and be assets to their communities.

Specifically, any marijuana/cannabis conviction above 10 grams is considered a narcotics offense and, as a result, makes it nearly impossible to get a job in schools, park districts, and health care. Even having a record for a drug-related arrest can allow landlords to deny housing. Drug felonies result in lifetime bans for food stamps and public assistance. These policies also have a direct impact on homelessness.

The city of Chicago’s 2014 Point in Time count showed that 69% of homeless men and 58% of homeless women on the street in Chicago are formerly incarcerated. Along with that, 60% of homeless men and 27% of homeless women in the shelters have prior criminal records. 

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is a part of a reentry coalition that advocates for policies that remove barriers to employment and housing for people with records. We recognize that lifetime barriers are unnecessary and detrimental because they not only result in increased homelessness; they also increases the likelihood of recidivism. The recidivism rate in Illinois for people without full time employment is 47%. Additionally, experiencing homelessness makes it difficult for returning citizens to comply with parole, which also leads to recidivism.

This year, we lobbied in Springfield for a bill removing lifetime bars for employment in schools. Under current law, people with drug offenses, including cannabis possession, and other offenses, are barred for life from working in schools. This bill, HB 494 allows people with drug offenses to be eligible to work in schools seven years after probation and parole. House Bill 494 passed both the House and Senate with strong bi-partisan support and is at the governor’s desk waiting to be signed.

Jonathan Holmes (second from left), with CCH's Charles Austin, advocates with Community Renewal Society and Heartland Alliance, and State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (middle), sponsor of HB 494.
Jonathan Holmes (second from left), with CCH’s Charles Austin, advocates with Community Renewal Society and Heartland Alliance, and State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (middle), sponsor of HB 494.

This summer, we are a part of a working group to amend the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance to ban the use of arrest records and some convictions in screening applicants for housing. In a recent roundtable discussion with providers from Trilogy, Access Living, and Respond Now, one of the most common circumstances that lead to arrests and as a result, being denied housing is homelessness. Many homeless people are often arrested panhandling or loitering. Others face charges for public urination, all of which are results of being homeless. This proposed amendment would end screening processes that disproportionately affect people experiencing homelessness, people of color, and with disabilities.

Next year in Springfield, we will work on a bill to remove bars to employment for health care-related jobs. Currently, people with certain offenses are eligible to work in health care if they receive a waiver from the Illinois Department of Public Health. However, for drug related offenses including cannabis possession, people are ineligible for hire. This bill would remove bars for cannabis possession of 10 grams or below.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless will continue to advocate for policies that provide access to employment for people with criminal records, including those who have been convicted for drug offenses. One of the ways to improve drug policy is to remove unnecessary barriers that prevent people who have turned their lives around from being assets to their communities.