Thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, the immoral institution of slavery ended over 150 years ago. But the vestiges of slavery—prejudice and discrimination against people of color—remain woven into the fabric of American society.
Race discrimination continued under Jim and Jane Crow laws and the “separate but equal” legal doctrine. Thankfully, heroes of all ages and backgrounds risked everything to eradicate those immoral laws and practices so that liberty and justice could truly be available to all. As a result of their sacrifices, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and enacted, 50 years ago today on July 2, 1964, and Jim and Jane Crow laws and practices began to fade into the recesses of American history just as slavery did over a hundred years prior.
As these laws were repealed and overturned, new ways to systemically oppress people of color emerged–“new Jim Crow.” The ‘new Jim Crow’ refers to the disproportionate, mass incarceration of minorities, and the subsequent legal discrimination these men and women endure because of the resulting criminal record.
Depriving individuals of their freedom is a significant component of the criminal justice system. Depriving those same individuals of freedom after they complete their sentences should not be. Unfortunately, more than 65 million men and women throughout the nation with criminal records, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, are facing just that.
The vast majority of employers will not hire men and women with a conviction of any kind. Moreover, people with convictions face significant challenges accessing affordable housing, and a significant number of landlords are not likely to rent to someone with a criminal record. With no meaningful access to jobs or housing, how can these people, who have paid their debts to society, be truly free?
These deprivations certainly have devastating effects on the individuals affected, but they also have a deleterious effect on these individuals’ elderly parents, children, and loved ones—for life. That is immoral.
Thankfully, members of the Illinois General Assembly (on both sides of the aisle) understand this. Recently, the General Assembly voted to pass two bills, HB 2378 and HB 5701 (or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act), both introduced by Representative Rita Mayfield, that will make it easier for millions of Illinois men and women with criminal records to truly have their freedom restored. Now, it is our hope that Illinois Governor, Patrick Quinn, uses his power to sign these bills into law so that this most recent incarnation of these immoral laws and practices can be addressed. This represents an opportunity for the men and women who have turned their lives around to take care of themselves and their families. The signing of these bills would also make Illinois a leader as it relates to respecting the rights of all individuals and set a standard that we can all hope other states will emulate.
Specifically, HB 5701, or the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act (JOQAA),will improve the hiring process for over 300,000 employers and open doors for more than a million qualified people with criminal records in Illinois. Under the JOQAA, employers will be tasked with first determining whether applicants are qualified for a job and offering them an interview or the job before inquiring into the applicant’s criminal history in any form. This will allow men and women who have worked hard to become qualified for positions an opportunity to access the job opportunities they’ve earned.
The other bill, HB 2378, will give more than a quarter million men and women in Illinois who have minor, older, low-level offenses (misdemeanors) an opportunity to petition the court to limit who can look at those old convictions (a process called sealing). This legislation will help ensure that hard-working individuals with old, minor convictions are not unjustly denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities.
These bills are significant on their own. But they are even more significant today as we reflect on the lives lost in the fight for freedom throughout our history and the gains they’ve won as a result of their tireless, selfless fight for what’s right.