On January 28th, the League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored a community forum on the hurdles and injustices experienced by ex-felons as they attempt to transition from prison life to re-entry into society. The event, attended by over 70 people, was co-sponsored by the Citizens for Justice Options, a voter committee of the LWV, and the ISU Criminal Justice Department.
The panel included:
Malcolm Young, nationally renowned expert on prison populations and current planner for Illinois prison release practices
Craig Findley, Illinois Prison Review Board
Jim Tusek, lawyer in the McLean County Public Defender’s office, and Board member of the Joy Care Center
Benny Lee, Community Liaison for the Illinois prisons through TASC (Treatment Alternative for a Safer Community)
Is there Justice for Ex-felons?
Three themes stood out during the evening’s presentations and discussion: the socially-imposed, oftentimes discriminatory, obstacles in the way of ex-felons’ successful re-entry into society, what can be done to ease that transition, and what can be done to decrease crime and incarceration in the first place.
The obstacles and discrimination faced by ex-felons were best related by Benny Lee, an ex-felon and former gang leader, who overcame his ex-felon status to eventually achieve a PhD and professorship at Northeastern University.
[For a brief summary of Benny Lee’s career, visit WeGotNextChicago.com. Benny Lee tells his story as a former gang leader of the Vice Lords, and subsequent experience in incarceration, for the Chicago Gang History Project.]
Mr. Lee stressed that ex-felons are the only class of Americans almost entirely unprotected from discrimination, from workplace discrimination to unequal treatment under the law.
When looking for a job, ex-felons find it extremely difficult because they must admit to a previous felony on employment applications. Employers oftentimes will not consider ex-felons for a position, regardless of the specific circumstances, so ex-felons face a no-win choice: tell the truth on an application and be guaranteed of it not being considered, or lie with the aim of having a job for a few weeks before being found out and fired.
Panelists and audience participants commented on the complexity of addressing the employment issue. One suggestion included a prohibition against requiring job applicants to admit to a felony on applications, only allowing employers the rights to ask that question in a subsequent interview. This solution would cut down on felons’ applications being thrown immediately in the trash bin. Another idea involved providing more tax incentives to those companies that hire ex-felons.
The list of rights and privileges denied to ex-felons, taken for granted by most of us, is quite long and undoubtedly surprising to most people.
Under legislation passed in Congress, ex-felons are prevented from living in government-subsidized Section 8 housing, which oftentimes means that they cannot return to live with their families upon release. They are also prohibited from taking out financial aid loans from the government, an odious law that prevents the acquisition of education and skills. Benny Lee also pointed out that felons cannot apply for over 80 different sorts of licenses, some of which are required to start a small business.
The one bright spot in Illinois is that ex-felons, immediately upon release, can vote in elections. In many other states, ex-felons are denied the franchise for a numbers of years; in a few states, they are denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives.
Another topic discussed on what can be done, besides the services and aid that can be given to ex-felons in the here-and-now, was how to reduce incarceration, which for decades has led to serious prison overcrowding.
Malcolm Young, nationally known expert on prison populations and current planner for Illinois prison release practices, stressed that successful re-entry programs must focus on minimizing incarceration in the first place, which is extremely important in a country with the highest prison population, and funding community programs for ex-felon re-entry into society.
Many inmates are in prison for short sentences for having committed a series of non-violent crimes, many of them drug and substance abuse related. During and after their incarceration, which to a great extent is continued preparation for how to be a criminal, $25,000 – $100,000 is spent annually per inmate on their rehabilitation with marginal, disappointing, re-entry success rates. According to Mr. Young, that immense amount money is spent ineffectively. Rather than be largely wasted on the inefficient prison results, it should be spent on community diversion programs to prevent incarceration in the first place.
The illuminating discussion between panelists and audience members spoke on these issues and others. Craig Finley, member of the Illinois Prison Review board, provided his expertise on the Illinois parole system. Jim Tusek, lawyer and board member of JoyCare, spoke of the transition services his organization provides to ex-felons. Below are further resources related to the panel and topic.
John Howard Association of Illinois
“John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) works to achieve a fair, humane and cost-effective criminal justice system by promoting adult and juvenile prison reform, leading to successful re-integration and enhanced community safety.”
Joy Care Center, information on the United Way Site
“Joy Care Center operates with 100% volunteers offering guidance to ex-offenders upon their release from prison. We complete a Client Assessment and set goals for transitioning from incarceration to life on the outside.. Whenever possible we assign a mentor to routinely make contact with the individual to monitor progress towards achieving goals The mentoring process is generally no less than 6 months and can be up to a year depending on the Client’s capacity to become independent by getting employment, etc.”
Treatment Alternative to Restore Communities
From the TASC website:
“TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) is a not-for-profit organization that provides behavioral health recovery management services for individuals with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Through a specialized system of clinical case management, TASC initiates and motivates positive behavior change and long-term recovery for individuals in Illinois’ criminal justice, corrections, juvenile justice, child welfare, and other public systems.”