CHICAGO — Three documents that would have seemed improbable 15 years ago now hang, carefully arranged, above Andre Joachim Jr.’s desk: a master’s degree in counseling, certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors, and an Illinois license as a professional counselor.
Fifteen years ago, Joachim was just about to enter prison for the fourth time.
“If you would have told me 15 years ago I would have graduated with my master’s degree, I would have laughed,” Joachim said. “I thought I’d be dead by 30.”
Yet after his fourth incarceration, Joachim began to reconsider life. He attended classes at Joliet Junior College, an ankle monitor hidden beneath his pant leg. He earned associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The last hurdle was getting licensed by the state — something that until recently was banned for people with backgrounds like Joachim’s. But a 2016 law changed that, allowing people with forcible felony convictions to become licensed health care workers.
“It was an amazing experience,” Joachim said. “I felt this new lease on life since getting licensed. Doors have opened up for me.”
Doors long closed to people with criminal records have begun to crack open in industries ranging from health care to banking as employers seek new sources of talent and lawmakers bet that gainful employment will reduce the risk that people will return to prison.
In Illinois, lawmakers have changed licensing laws to make more than 100 occupations more accessible to people with criminal records, including in real estate and accounting. The state also has expanded the types of convictions that can be sealed and therefore invisible to most employers. Meanwhile, tweaks to federal banking policies make it easier for banks to hire people convicted of minor crimes.
“We are evolving into a society that accepts that people make mistakes and should be given a second chance,” said Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management, which has been encouraging employers to consider hiring people with records.
If the nation’s low unemployment rate continues to fall, “no one will have the luxury of not at least considering this,” he said.
Many companies are still reluctant, concerned about negligent-hiring lawsuits should something go wrong. And while some companies are targeting people with records as part of their diversity initiatives, few are broadcasting it loudly, Taylor said.
Advocates say it is a population that employers can’t ignore.
Giving convicted felons a fair shot at a good job is increasingly being embraced as necessary.
“Society as a whole has started to shift its mindset,” said Sakira Cook, senior counsel at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Housing, education, job opportunities are all basic needs, and if the needs are met then the likelihood of someone engaging in criminal behavior is reduced.”
Though more doors are being opened, it’s not clear how many people are walking through them. Just nine people with criminal records have so far taken advantage of a 2016 Illinois law removing the lifetime ban on health care licenses for people with certain felonies, according to the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
That likely stems from a lack of awareness, said Sodiqa Williams, general counsel and vice president of external affairs at the Chicago-based Safer Foundation, which provides re-entry help to the formerly incarcerated.
“For decades people understood that certain professions are not attainable, so they don’t even try it,” Williams said. “You have to change the culture.”
Joachim, for example, didn’t know he could get his license until just before he took his National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification. He understood that he might not be able to get a license, but went to school anyway in hopes of building a better life.
He thought he had thrown away his life at 15 when he joined a gang after being kicked out of his home. Over the years, he was convicted of armed robbery, crimes related to dealing drugs and illegal possession of guns.
His feelings changed, however, when his sons were born, shortly before his fourth term in prison.
He didn’t want crime and apathy to be his legacy. He began taking classes behind bars, and once he was released, a psychology professor at Joliet Junior College took an interest in him.
That professor helped spur him into a career as a counselor. He found that he had a knack for connecting with people and enjoyed helping others, including those, who, like him, have vitiligo, a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches.
“It’s one of the most accepting fields because they realize people have flaws,” Joachim said of psychology. “Being able to connect with people from the walks of life I’ve traversed, it’s meaningful and impactful for me.”
It’s a career that’s given him purpose, he said.
That sense of purpose is precisely what can make people with criminal records such good employees, advocates say.
Presence Health has been working with Safer since last summer to hire ex-offenders. So far, it’s hired 25 to 30 people, and those employees are among the most loyal, said Reggie Allen, a talent acquisition consultant for Presence.
They work in housekeeping, food service, patient transportation, and in some cases, as licensed health care workers.
“They’re very dedicated,” Allen said. “They’re hungry for a chance because they know they may not get many chances.”
Hiring those with criminal backgrounds has helped Presence retain employees in high-turnover positions, Allen said. But Presence also hires them as part of its mission as a Catholic health care system.
“We wanted to help provide some experience for those folks,” Allen said. “There are some really good people who’ve made a mistake, and, but for the grace of God, some of us might be in that same situation.”
Safer has placed 100 clients in both licensed and unlicensed health care jobs at 40 Chicago-area hospital systems since 2016, when it launched an initiative to help people with records enter high-demand, higher-paying occupations. More than 90 percent of those placed remain in their jobs or have moved up, said Matthew McFarland, director of the initiative.
“Three years ago I would have said there is no way that we’d be placing nurses and X-ray technicians in these big hospitals, I would have said you were crazy,” McFarland said. “Not only have we kicked down those doors, but now hospitals are coming to us.”
The initiative now sends clients to coding camps to prepare them for jobs in information technology, plus employers in advanced manufacturing and transportation come looking for workers to train, McFarland said.
The top concern employers express is liability — they worry that they could be hit with a negligent-hiring lawsuit if they hire an ex-offender who later harms someone.
Several states have enacted laws that protect employers against negligent-hiring claims based on an employee’s criminal past.
Some industries, like banking, that have long been off limits to people with records, are changing policies to accommodate hiring needs.
Banks must get approval from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to employ people whose crimes involved “dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering,” but last month the FDIC modified its policy to exempt more people from the requirement.
Some banks — including JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest — hoped the changes would go further, but were pleased to see progress.
Jeff Sigmund, senior vice president of public relations at the American Banking Association, the industry trade group, said in an emailed statement that the FDIC’s decision “means the industry will have a wider pool of job applicants in the future, and it could open a door of opportunity for people deserving of a second chance.” Still, he said, “It’s important to remember that the updated rules do not obligate banks to hire anyone, and financial institutions will continue to make their own employment decisions.”
Employers across industries have to balance their desire for a broader talent pool with a responsibility to protect customers and employees.
At C.H. Robinson, a logistics provider with 2,000 Chicago employees, that means having a consistent but open-minded policy that considers the number of convictions and how long ago they occurred, as well as the nature of the offense, said Marc Klein, director of operations. The company doesn’t do background checks until the last part of the process, so it can get to know the applicants first, and its policies have evolved to take into account changing laws, such as Chicago’s decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession.
“If we really had to limit the number of people with drug offenses, we couldn’t hire,” Klein said.
Facing stiff competition for talent as well as a desire to diversify its workforce, the company partnered with the nonprofit LeadersUp to connect with young adults from underserved communities. The program, which vets and prepares candidates, has helped the company hire 50 people for administrative jobs that pay $14 to $16 an hour. Some of them have criminal records, and sometimes the records are deal-breakers.
Kendall Walker, 21, said LeadersUp helped him get an interview at C.H. Robinson. But when his background check turned up a misdemeanor theft charge from a couple of months earlier — he was convicted of stealing money from a store where was working — the company cited the record as a reason for not hiring him.
Klein said he could not comment on personnel decisions.
Walker, who said he stole to pay off student debt from college, was sentenced to eight hours of community service.
Ultimately, employers will be the ones who decide whether to give individuals with criminal histories a second chance. But the recent policy changes are giving hope to many who feel they’ve paid their debts to society and are ready, in some cases, to give back.
Joachim is now working on his doctorate in counselor education and supervision. He also works part-time and already has more than half a dozen clients.
He hopes one day to become a clinical director or own a practice.
His passion in life is helping others.
“For those who want to change and be productive members of society, now you can do that,” Joachim said.