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.