July 25, 2016 | by Bryant Jackson-Green Print

Lisa Creason. Photo Credit: Illinois Policy Institute

Each year, 30,000 people leave Illinois prisons after completing their sentences. They’ve made mistakes and served their time. But now, the biggest challenge they face will be getting back on their feet and staying out of crime.

Yet studies show that as many 60 to 75 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed a year after leaving prison. Many reasons contribute to this. There are few opportunities, for example, to build employable skills while incarcerated. And some employers may, understandably, be reluctant to hire employees with criminal records.

But one major problem is that too often government stands in the way, impinging on the economic freedom that can provide solutions to post-incarceration underemployment and joblessness.

In Illinois, at least 118 professional and business licenses can be denied to an applicant with a criminal record. And given that a quarter of all jobs in the state require an occupational license, ex-offenders can find themselves shut out of a significant number of jobs. State licensing boards can deny people with records the right to work as a barber, real estate agent, roofer, dance hall operator, and hundreds of other occupations. These restrictions even prevent some ex-offenders who have been unable to obtain employment from starting their own businesses.

One victim of restrictive licensing rules is Lisa Creason, a single mother of three. Like all parents, Lisa wants to provide a better life for her children. She aspired to become a nurse and, with the higher earnings a career in nursing would bring, get off public assistance and move to a safer neighborhood. She went to school while working as a certified nursing assistant, and graduated in 2012.

But because she had a 20-year-old criminal record for robbery, she was denied the license. When Lisa was 19, she tried to steal money from a Subway cash register to get food for her daughter. She paid the price for her crime, serving part of a three-year prison sentence before getting out on work release. But because of her past mistake, she was denied the opportunity to work — more than 20 years later.

Thankfully, Lisa had the determination to push to change the law to allow her, and others in her situation, to become a nurse. That bill passed through the Illinois general assembly and is now awaiting signature by the governor.

Lisa is a rare example of success. Not everyone has the time or resources to lobby government for the right to earn a living.

Yet everyone benefits the more former offenders are employed. In Illinois, 48 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of release. According to one study, though, among those who found jobs and kept them for at least 30 days, only 16 percent returned to prison.

There’s strong evidence that increased employment among offenders will reduce the burden of taxpayer spending on crime, too. Illinois spends an average of $118,746 on every act of recidivism, according to the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. Over several years, that can add up to billions.

But if increased work opportunities even led to just a 5 percent reduction in recidivism, Illinois would save more than $541 million over nine years in criminal justice spending, victimization costs, and lost economic activity. With the opportunity to work or create a business, thousands more would be better able to turn their lives around to make positive contributions in their communities.

The movement for criminal justice reform depends on allowing former offenders the chance, like everyone else, to earn a living. Most people with records want, like everyone, to work and provide for their families. Economic freedom is the key.

Bryant Jackson-Green portrait
Bryant Jackson-Green is an M.A. student in public policy and public administration at Northwestern University and expects to graduate in 2017. He currently works for the Illinois Policy Institute as a criminal justice policy analyst. Bryant graduated with a B.A. in political science from the University of Chicago in 2013. His research interests include criminal justice, public choice, and regulatory policy. Learn More about Bryant Jackson-Green >