State House Passes Bill Rewarding Inmates Who Pursue Education Behind Bars With Shorter Sentences

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Police-officers-turned-legislators sponsored two bills that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Illinois’ House of Representatives last week, which would reward inmates who continue their education behind bars with shorter sentences and sealed criminal records.

Last February, Rep. John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) sponsored HB 3149, which would seal criminal records for non-violent felony offenders seeking employment, if they receive a “high school diploma, associate’s degree, career certificate, vocational technical certification, or bachelor’s degree, or passed the high school level Test of General Educational Development” while completing their sentence. The same applies for individuals who earn a certificate during aftercare or supervised release.

A separate bill introduced two days later by Rep. John Anthony (R-Plainfield), HB 3884, says, “90 days of sentence credit shall be awarded to any prisoner who passes high school equivalency testing while the prisoner is committed to the Department of Corrections.” In other words, inmates will have 90 days deducted from their sentences. The credit can be tacked on to any credit that was previously earned by someone under DOC supervision.

On Thursday, the two bills received bipartisan support, garnering 80 percent of House votes.

Cabello, a detective for Rockford Police Department, responded, “With this legislation I hope to encourage participation in progressive educational programs so that people serving sentences for non-violent crimes may take their chance at becoming productive members of society upon their release.”

Anthony similarly comes from a law enforcement background, having served as a municipal police officer and county sheriff’s deputy. Prior to becoming a state legislator, he worked as a case manager for adult offenders with the Safer Foundation, which assists formerly incarcerated people with the job application process. And days before the House voted on HB 3884, he was appointed to the the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC). “By incentivizing inmates to earn their GED, we can help them transition back into the community after completing their sentence and dramatically increase their likelihood of success in finding employment,” he said.

According to a RAND Corporation study, a person who pursues academic or vocational education while serving time is 13 percent more likely to find employment. Correctional education also leads to a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating.

For people behind bars in Illinois, the new legislation could mean the difference between successful re-entry and future recidivism, as criminal records typically hinder employment opportunities. The vast majority of U.S. employers — 87 percent — conduct background checks during the hiring process, and any involvement in the criminal justice system reduces the likelihood of being hired. By extension, people who are unable to find work have a difficult time securing housing, food, and other necessary items — and subsequently break the law to make ends meet. Today, 70 million people have arrests or convictions on their records.

Sealing criminal records from potential employers can give former inmates a chance at gainful employment. Outside of Illinois, efforts to “ban the box,” or remove questions about applicants’ criminal backgrounds, are gaining traction. Without having to answer the dreaded conviction question, which also shows up on housing applications and insurance forms, people re-entering society will have one less obstacle to climb. Earlier this month, Virginia joined the ranks of D.C., Nebraska, and Georgia, which implemented their own variations of ban the box laws.