04/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Between a Rock and a Criminal Background Check

Considering all of the jobs lost to the current economic crisis or to cheaper labor overseas, this may be the tightest job market most of us have ever endured. You know things are tough when thousands of people line up to fill out applications for jobs as school custodians or Wal-Mart cashiers. But it's even tougher if you've got a felony conviction.

With so many applicants to choose from, employers are more likely than ever to toss an ex-felon's application in the trash. That's why measures to seal or expunge records can greatly improve an ex-felon's employment opportunities. And it's also why the Illinois State Police's denial of thousands of court-ordered sealings and expungements over the past several years has drawn swift attention from the courts and the Illinois attorney general, as first uncovered and reported by The Chicago Reporter.

For years, The Chicago Reporter has documented the difficulties facing ex-offenders looking for work. Many of them struggle to overcome poor academic records and spotty employment histories. Some ex-offenders exhibit great tenacity but fall prey to the indelible mark of a criminal conviction. More employers are conducting criminal background checks; some are horrified by the mere thought of hiring an ex-offender, and those who do often don't want it known publicly. On top of that, felony records exacerbate the racially-motivated barriers to employment that have dogged us for decades.

Why should you care? I don't have a good answer for that. Maybe you shouldn't care at all, especially if you're out of work, too. However, it should be noted that only low-level, nonviolent felonies are eligible to be sealed or expunged and a judge must review and approve the request. Ex-offenders who are half-steppin' usually get their requests denied by the courts. If a judge deems an ex-felon reformed enough to limit access to their criminal conviction, why should the Illinois State Police or anyone else, for that matter, stand in the way?

With more people looking for work than at any point in recent memory, we should encourage the removal of any and all barriers to finding work--even for the folks who've made some mistakes.