By Camille Taylor
Last Monday I attended an eye-opening community forum sponsored by the Citizens for Justice Options, which is a League of Women Voters Committee and the ISU Department of Criminal Justice Sciences.
It was titled, “Released Prisoners: Citizens or Criminals?” The panel of four men included a local public defender, a former state representative and member of the Illinois Prison Review Board, a renowned expert on prison populations, and an ex-offender who is now a prominent speaker and expert on this culture. Do you believe in giving people a second chance?
The forum’s premise examined the barriers ex-offenders face when re-integrating into society. One of the main barriers is a lack of “re-entry assistance.” This includes support networks, similar to those in Alcoholics Anonymous, education, training, and job skills. Binny Lee, the ex-offender on the panel, had been in the criminal justice system from age 15 through his 30’s. Since he’d never had a real job, he needed all of the things I just mentioned to even get started. To his credit, he got his GED, Associates, Bachelors, and Master’s degree, and is now the Community Liaison for the Illinois Prison system through a group known as TASC, Treatment Alternative for a Safer Community.
There are “collateral consequences” for ex-offenders such as Federal laws that prohibit them from qualifying for financial aid or living in Section 8 housing. So, committing a state crime also has federal consequences, and job applications weed out ex-offenders with the “have you ever been convicted of a crime or of a felony?” question. Ex-offenders are an “unprotected class” meaning they have no legal recourse to get help when they are discriminated against, unlike other groups who have been able to gain rights to fight discrimination through the courts.
Local groups such as “Labyrinth” and “Joy Care”, work with ex-offenders to give the “re-entry assistance” that Mr. Lee talked about. Joy Care has a support group and a “Mom and Me” camp in August, for children and mothers who are ex-offenders. Labyrinth tries to help local women after they leave prison by providing a support group.
It’s not in society’s best interest to have non-violent ex-offenders who can’t work, reunite with their families, or contribute to their communities. The investment in an ex-offender is a small price to pay compared to housing a prisoner.
Camille Taylor, a retired Counselor from Normal Community High School, has been an educator in this community for 34 years. She is active in the community currently serving as a church elder and board member for both the Baby Fold and the YWCA. She has been recognized by the YWCA as a Woman of Distinction for education, a Martin Luther King Jr. award winner for the City of Bloomington, a Distinguished Alumni by the College of Education at Illinois State University, a Human and Civil Rights award winner for the Illinois Education Association, and the H.Councill Trenholm Award recipient from the National Education Association for her work with diversity. She lives in Bloomington with her husband, Arthur, and is a mother and grandmother.
The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Forum are solely those of the Forum’s author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.