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The Fear Behind Our Fears of the Formerly Incarcerated

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When The Chicago Reporter broke the news that the Illinois State Police had ignored thousands of court orders to expunge or seal criminal records of some ex-offenders, all hell broke loose.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan expressed her outrage, demanding compliance. Some black state lawmakers expressed their outrage with Gov. Pat Quinn, according to comments state Sen. Donne E. Trotter made on WVON in April. Former Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent resigned, saying judges were trying to expunge or seal records of individuals who are not eligible. "Many of them are child molesters," Trent told The Telegraph, in Alton, Ill.

The Reporter's "Closing Arguments" by Kelly Virella, gives an up-to-date look into this controversy.

It's no secret that ex-offenders are hard to employ, especially in a tight job market where employers routinely use background checks. Back in 2004, the Reporter found that the Illinois State Police were handling a record number of requests for background checks.

It's also no secret that expungement and sealing are highly effective in improving ex-offenders' chances to find work. That's the reason for some of the outrage. Denying these court orders will dramatically affect the job prospects for people trying to turn their lives around. "Ignoring these expungement orders negatively impacts the lives of people who deserve a fair opportunity to get a job, find housing and take care of their families," Madigan said.

But the real problem isn't the shrinking job market, the routine use of background checks or that the Illinois State Police doesn't honor thousands of orders to expunge or seal records. Actually, I don't think the real problem has much to do with criminal records at all.

It's true that the stigma of a criminal record casts an ominous shadow that follows an ex-offender long after he or she walks away from prison. Employers will be wary of ex-offenders, not only because of questions they might have about trust, but also because hiring folks with criminal records can be a public relations nightmare. For years, the Safer Foundation has helped connect employers with ex-offenders. But even those employers often don't want their customers to know that they hire individuals who were formerly incarcerated. But if we dig a little deeper than those fears, I think we'll find far more troubling fears -- fears that are confirmed, not raised, by criminal backgrounds.

In Illinois, when we're talking about ex-offenders, we're really talking about black men. More than half of the state's prisoners are black men. And it's possible that the race of an ex-offender will tell you more about their chances of connecting with work than their criminal history.

Consider that when the Reporter investigated the ways in which African-American and Latino ex-offenders sought work, in "Family Ties" from our March 2005 issue, we discovered that 75 percent of white parolees in Cook County were working compared with 58 percent of Latino parolees and just 35 percent of black parolees.

And these racial gaps exist no matter how you break down unemployment statistics in Illinois. African-American residents have an unemployment rate nearly three times higher than that of white residents in Illinois, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey data.

Those gaps diminish somewhat with education, but black people are always at the bottom of the ladder. And African Americans with more education still trail their white counterparts with less education. For instance, black folks with associate's degrees are out of work more often than white folks with high school diplomas. African Americans with bachelor's degrees are out of work more often than white people with associate's degrees, and so on.

In fact, Devah Pager, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and faculty associate of the university's Office of Population Research, found in a pair of studies that a white felon was more likely to find a job than an African American with no criminal record at all, as Wade Askew notes in the Reporter's "Double Trouble."

It's easier for us to hold conversations, design programs and pass legislation about ex-offenders and their challenges finding work. It's harder for us to talk about our deep-seated struggles with race. However, if we truly want to improve the work opportunities for men and women coming home from prison, our work can't focus solely on dismantling the stigma of a criminal background. We will have to confront our long-standing fears and assumptions about black men.