Letters to the Editor

Guest view: Criminal-justice reform needed for those seeking to start a new life

Haunted by her past, an Illinois mom fights for her family’s future. Should an offender’s loved ones be punished for a crime long forgotten?

This is the question facing those seeking to reform Illinois’ criminal-justice system, where some laws have trapped families in a cycle of poverty and dependency long after a parent commits a crime.

Just take the story of Lisa Creason, a mother of three from Decatur, who is fighting for a better life. A teenage crime of desperation and a one-size-fits-all system stand in her way.

Lisa has worked as a certified nursing assistant for a decade, yet her earnings have never been enough to move her family completely off of government assistance. Becoming a registered nurse offered her a shot at independence, and she seized the opportunity.

When Creason graduated from Richland Community College with an associate degree in applied science in nursing, she called her mother in tears.

“I will never forget coming home from the school and calling my mom and telling her I passed the final. I’m done,” she said. “I’m actually going to be able to buy my kids a home, (I thought.) I’m actually going to be able to afford to move my kids out of the ‘hood.’”

Not so fast, said state officials.

Due to a law passed in 2011, a crime Lisa committed as a 19-year-old blocks her from holding a license to work as a registered nurse. The crime? Attempted robbery. Creason tried to steal money from a local Subway in order to feed herself and her daughter.

More than two decades later, she’s now part of a coalition pushing a bill that would allow ex-offenders like her the chance to petition the state for a license to practice as a registered nurse. The Illinois Senate passed Senate Bill 42 on March 26, 2015. It’s now sitting in the House Rules Committee and boasts 28 co-sponsors.

Decatur’s community leaders tout Creason’s life after incarceration as one of redemption. But that doesn’t matter in Illinois’ criminal-justice system, where one size fits all.

Amy Snyder, Creason’s former case worker, applauds Creason for setting a positive example for her children and others.

“This is about assisting those who do not want to be recipients of government assistance, who do not want to be living in Section 8 housing, do not want to live the same cycle over again,” Snyder said.

“It’s about someone who wants give back and be part of the community, and rightfully so.”

Lieutenant Shane Brandel of the Decatur Police Department first met Creason while investigating the death of her fiancée, who was killed by a stray bullet in 2002. Soon after, Creason founded a successful nonprofit battling youth violence in Decatur.

“Since then, I’ve seen her do nothing but positive things for herself and for the community,” Brandel said.

When it comes to Creason’s struggle for a license, “I support what she’s doing,” Brandel said. “And I applaud her for her efforts. Most people would just give up.”

A road to success is difficult to find for many of Illinois’ ex-offenders. More than 45 percent return to prison within three years. This is a rate of failure Illinoisans can’t afford.

According to the Illinois Sentencing Advisory Council, or SPAC, a single instance of recidivism costs an average of nearly $120,000 — a cost borne by taxpayers, the victim of the crime and the state economy as a whole.

Recidivism is also a major public safety concern. Illinoisans who re-offend commit a majority of crimes in the state, according to SPAC.

Children are the hidden victims of this crisis, as more than 70,000 currently have a parent in an Illinois prison. They are more likely to drop out of school, experience substance-abuse problems and engage in criminal behavior as adults.

So what can break this cycle?

While it’s not a silver bullet, a steady job has been proven to reduce the likelihood that an individual returns to crime. This means Illinois lawmakers must critically examine the barriers to decent employment for ex-offenders after their release.

Expanding the availability of record sealing — meaning only law enforcement agencies can access a person’s criminal record — and expungement — meaning one’s record is wiped clean — are two crucial steps toward ensuring those who have proven rehabilitation are allowed to move forward with their lives.

And as Creason’s case proves, Illinois officials must take a critical look at the state’s occupational licensing restrictions, and ensure those regulations don’t punish ex-offenders who do not pose a safety risk.

A sustainable state budget, public safety and thousands of Illinoisans seeking success all depend on criminal-justice reform.

Austin Berg is a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute, a Springfield-based government watchdog organization.