Sontcerá McWilliams works on her laptop at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in Chicago, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Sontcerá McWilliams works on her laptop at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in Chicago, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Over 20 years ago, Sontcerá McWilliams was driving her car on Chicago’s South Side near 83rd Street when she got into an accident.

The man who’d crashed into her saw her gun, which had been in the trunk with her groceries. Though she had a license, she was taken to jail and charged with unlawful use of a weapon, she said.

Three months later, McWilliams, from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood, was fired from her new job because her weapon charge was still in the system as a felony, not the misdemeanor she had ended up with, she said.

She sold weed to make money and was put in jail again for about a week, then spent a year on probation. “I could not find a job at all,” she said.

McWilliams, 49, now works with criminal justice reform coalition Cabrini-Green Legal Aid as a social justice advocate for people with criminal records, after Cabrini-Green helped her get a job. She appeared with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker earlier this year in support of a new Illinois law placing limits on how companies can use information obtained during background checks, including restricting their ability to rescind job offers.

The law, which went into effect late March, comes at a time when corporations are taking new steps to improve second-chance hiring practices as they face hiring challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic alongside broad calls to advance social justice.

According to a 2018 analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative, a policy think tank focused on criminal justice, formerly incarcerated people experience an unemployment rate five times higher than the national rate. In Illinois, 3.3 million people have been arrested or convicted of a crime over the last 40 years, according to a 2020 report by nonprofit Heartland Alliance.

SB 1480, created as part of a bill package by Illinois’ Black Caucus, fills gaps in existing legislation protecting people with criminal records from discrimination.

Formerly incarcerated job-seekers are protected by so-called ban the box laws that prevent employers from asking questions about criminal background in application forms. But ban the box, adopted by Illinois in 2014, only applies to the start of the job application process — it doesn’t stop companies from running background checks later on, meaning people with conviction records can be filtered out at a later stage.

Illinois’ new law is broader than ban the box, said Michael Sobczak, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Rights. If a company rejects an applicant because of their criminal record, it has to prove the rejection was because a person’s crime has a “substantial relationship” to the job, such as a person who committed a sex crime being denied a job working with children.

Before they can reject an applicant, employers must consider how long ago the crime was committed; how many convictions someone has; how severe the crime was, and whether it could affect the safety of others; circumstances surrounding the conviction; how old the applicant was when they were convicted; and whether they have been rehabilitated.

McWilliams thinks that if companies that have rejected her had been forced to consider the length of time elapsed since her crime, “it would have helped.”

Under the law, companies are required to send a letter to applicants letting them know why they denied them — and if they feel they were unfairly denied because of their criminal background, applicants can file a discrimination charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights.

According to DeAnna Hoskins, criminal justice reform advocate and president of national organization JustLeadershipUSA, this change is “huge” because it leads to greater transparency and gives people clarity around whether they were being discriminated against because of their criminal background.

Although similar laws exist in other states, including Wisconsin, New York, California and Hawaii, getting SB 1480 passed in Illinois was difficult, according to Black Caucus member state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago.

“We’ve had a lot of quiet opposition on the bill; there seemed to be a lock on it,” Harper said.

Some Republicans who objected to the measure questioned the interpretation of what qualifies as a “substantial relationship” between a job and someone’s criminal past, worrying employers could be forced into accepting job applicants.

After trying to get the bill passed for two sessions, the Black Caucus was successful after the death of George Floyd catalyzed anti-racism efforts across the nation in 2020.

Data from the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center, shows that people of color are incarcerated at higher rates: In America, Black people are five times more likely that white people to have conviction records.

The new Illinois law is part of an economic reform package that contains other protections for people with criminal records, such as housing and fair wages for workers. “I know of companies that prey on people with records because they know they need a job,” Harper said.

Those protections include permitting people with criminal backgrounds to live in federally assisted housing, setting standards for state public housing authorities to use in criminal background screening, and expanding the Illinois Equal Pay Act so that employers with over 100 employees must disclose wage data to the state by gender, race and ethnicity.

Since March, eight people have filed charges, according to data provided by the Illinois Department of Human Rights. As of Nov. 16, three of these cases were in the intake process and five were pending investigation. All complaints have been over arrest records; no one has filed complaints about discrimination based on their conviction records, Sobczak said.

A note of caution about the law comes from Jeffrey Korzenik, chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank, who said Illinois’ legislation falls under the “stick” category. Instead of giving employers an incentive to pursue second-chance hiring, it punishes them and could lead to “avoidance strategies” he said.

For example, he said, companies could comply with the law but take other measures to avoid hiring people with criminal backgrounds, such as filtering out people who have gaps on their resumes or avoiding recruiting in certain neighborhoods, said Korzenik, who has written a book “Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community.”

Second-chance hiring appears to be gaining popularity in the private sector, especially since Floyd’s death, which prompted many large corporations to publicly pledge to step up their diversity initiatives. In April, more than 30 big companies banded together to create the Second Chance Business Coalition, which advocates for fair hiring of people with criminal backgrounds.

It’s possible that increased employer interest in second-chance hiring may be driven in part by difficulty filling vacancies during the COVID-19 pandemic as employers look to expand the hiring pool, said Beth Avery, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project.

Although the Second Chance Business Coalition launched this year, JPMorgan began making changes to hire more people with criminal records three years ago, starting a second-chance hiring program in Chicago in 2019. The bank works with Chicago organizations to find job seekers and ran a free expungement clinic this month in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood with Cabrini Green Legal Aid.

The bank said it hired more than 2,100 people with criminal backgrounds in 2020, making up around 10% of its new hires in the U.S. That included about 65 people in Chicago, the company said in August. Employees were hired into roles such as transaction processing, lending and account servicing.

Michelle Conklin, JPMorgan’s managing director in Chicago, said the push for second-chance hiring has provided “a boost in morale” internally because it signals to employees that the company is “actively making sure that we’re inclusive.”

Another company in the coalition, Union Pacific, is using Houston as a “test site” for second-chance hiring practices that include changing how far back they investigate a candidate’s background and using a review panel that examines the nature of someone’s crime and how long it has been since the crime was committed.

The company said it plans to launch a pilot second-chance program in the fourth quarter to target hiring in the transportation, engineering and mechanical departments.

Private sector collaboration is “a huge step,” partly because of the size of the corporations involved, said Avery of the National Employment Law Project. But it’s just the beginning, added Avery, who doubts “businesses are going to go far enough on their own.” Greater attention should be paid to the types of jobs people are getting, she said.

Formerly incarcerated people are often required to have a job as a condition of their parole, which can pressure them into finding any “underpaid, dangerous job,” Avery said. Knocking down barriers to entry around occupations that require a license and which are often better paid and provide a more stable career path could help, she said.

People with criminal records also need opportunity for advancement within companies, not just entry-level jobs, said Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA, which is pushing President Joe Biden to appoint a “criminal justice and reentry czar” in the White House to work on criminal justice reform.

Hoskins wants to see the formerly incarcerated get a seat at the table and a chance to lead policy decisions. A policy can sound great, said Hoskins, but if “people most impacted are not part of implementation, it falls short,” she said. People who have experienced getting turned away from jobs can provide useful feedback for business owners trying to improve their second-chance hiring efforts, she said.

Cabrini-Green Legal Aid’s McWilliams said being on the organization’s Leadership Council, which consists of previously incarcerated individuals and other impacted community members, has given her the opportunity to advocate for herself.

People “put you down” when you have a record, but advocating for change has helped her build her self-confidence, she said.

“I’m a product of not being able to be dependent on yourself because the system has created these systematic blocks to just simple (self)-dependency,” she said.

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