Legislation affords ex-offenders a new start

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Now that the president has signed the Second Chance Act of 2007 into law, programs for ex-offenders can receive more federal dollars to help felons find jobs, housing and ways to stay out of trouble.

“This legislation is long overdue because exoffenders released from prison need more than $5 [which is what offenders receive upon their release],” said Ronald Scott, 37. “We need housing, employment and educational assistance and in some cases psychological counseling.”

Scott was released from the Centralia Correctional Center April 3 after serving 18 months for felony theft. His criminal record dates back to 1990 and includes convictions for possession of a controlled substance, forgery and possession of a firearm, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“I have three kids and I have spent too much time away from them, especially my twins [boy and girl] who turn 3 next month,” he added. “I have been unsuccessful in finding a job. Every job I go to they tell me they do not hire felons. I am determined to find a job so I can help provide for my children and use my college education.”

He added that he is three credit hours shy of his associate’s degree in general studies and plans to return to school soon. Scott said before he went to prison, he worked as at a business consulting firm in Buffalo Grove. But unlike Scott, who is searching for a job, 35-year-old Ricardo Williams had a full-time job until he was laid off. Williams served eight years in prison for three separate felony convictions.

“I was working full-time and doing well until the state cut funding for my employer, CeaseFire,” Williams said. Williams worked at the non-profit, anti-violence organization as a an advocate. “Once their budget was cut they reduced me to part-time and then had to lay me and most of the staff off. I still volunteer for them because I believe in what they are doing but [I] still need to find a way to pay my bills,” he said.

Williams has a wife and four childrenûages 13, 12, 11 and 8ûand added he does not want to send his family through any more drama. “Thank God for my wife because she is very understanding and supportive. Most felons do not want to go back to the streets but its only so long you can go without money in your pockets,” Williams said.

“I don’t plan to return to a life of crime. I want my children to grow up with their father, something I didn’t have because my dad was locked up.” Employment seems to be the biggest barrier ex-offenders face once released from prison, and U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7th), chief sponsor of the Second Chance Act, said he plans to do more to help.

“A bill was previously introduced and presented to Gov. Rod Blagojevich that would have removed any questions about a person’s criminal record from employment applications but the governor vetoed it,” Davis said. “However, I was successful at limiting the number of years to seven that the federal government could go back and check for candidates seeking jobs in the transportation industry.”

After Sept. 11, tight security restrictions were placed on felons working at or near U.S. airports. Some felons who have not served time in prison still face challenges finding suitable employment. “It doesn’t matter if we served time or not, we still have a big ‘X’ on our back for life,” said Sharone Johnson, 37.

“Even though I received probation for my drug case I still have a hard time finding jobs. Before I pled guilty to possession, I worked as an armed security guard making $15 an hour. Now as a felon I cannot get a gun permit so I was reduced to a $9-an-hour guard. I have been looking for a better paying job for a year now but have yet to get a phone call for an interview.”

Johnson added she is having a hard time supporting her five children, who range in age from6-16, on her current salary. The Second Chance Act takes effect Oct. 9 and Davis said the 190-day waiting period allows for new programs to develop and current programs time to put together grant proposals to the U.S. Department of Justice who will administer the funds.

“We hope to get at least $150 million allocated for the bill by October. If we can spend billions on the war each month, surely we can fund programs to help our own people,” Davis said. “Those organizations, schools, churches and municipalities with ex-offender programs can now begin the process of applying.”

He added that when it’s all said and done, the ability to successfully help ex-offenders boils down to dollars and sense. “It takes money to help ex-offenders and that’s what this bill will largely do,” Davis said.

“It makes more sense to have legislation that reverses the trend of spending $35,000 to $40,000 a year to house them in prison when those monies can be used to help keep them out of prison permanently.”

______ Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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