The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!

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Proposal for a change in policy, hereafter called Robert's law:

To all concerned: 

As a mother who has struggled with our penal system from the time the schools were funneling our boys through the school to prison pipeline, long before SB-100 (IL Senate, 2015), and well after my son could benefit from the prerequisite knowledge that led to the creation of SB-100 (IL Senate, 2015), and long after the battles I waged so many times with the schools my son attended to divert this clear path to prison to no avail, I beseech you to lend your ear, your  consciousness, your reach, and your ability to act, to the following proposal to amend our non-violent felony gun convictions in the state of Illinois:

In light of society’s long overdue and newly heightened focus on social and judicial inequities that disproportionately affect minority men, and the undeniable need for continued social and judicial reform, and in light of our ever-developing understanding that our legal systems have, for centuries, been unfairly disadvantageous to people of color, I propose, to each legislator who has the power to effect positive change that helps break the cycle of mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, *felony label lock-out, and the impending recidivism that results from being locked out, a change in policy.

  • I propose a policy of forgiveness, second chances, and ownership that rightfully acknowledges the humanness of men who have made mistakes and gives them the opportunity to atone for their mistakes and start fresh. 
  • I propose a policy that recognizes that our department of corrections operates more like a department of corruptions and that instates a way for men to pay their legally imposed debts and reintegrate as full, first-class citizens, worthy of redemption. 
  • I propose a policy that recognizes that no permanent criminalization of peoples involved in non-violent crimes is acceptable and that permanent criminalization not only affects the individual, but their progeny and every family member, on whom the individual is dependent, upon his release from legal custody, and in particular, their mothers (like myself), who are in a continued battle against a myriad of punitive systems that would deny individuals the opportunity to be self-sufficient, thereby imposing innumerable, undue hardships on families who have resolved to provide continued support for their loved one.  The time of discarding capable human beings is past

*Felony label lock-out is the employer practice of performing criminal background checks on applicants, which empowers hiring companies to feel justified in denying gainful employment to “former” felons.  This practice denies those who want to gain legal employment in the workforce, the ability to sustain themselves and their families regardless of whether the conviction leading to the felony has anything to do with the work practices of the hiring company.  This practice informs many formerly convicted individuals that applying for many jobs is pointless and is a constant reminder of their past conviction, it is a veritable self-worth and self-esteem destroyer and often leads to despair, long-term dependency on others, and a return to behaviors that are likely to put them back in the penal system, thus creating a cycle of trouble and trauma for the individual, their families, and society. 

Robert’s Law

Reconsider            Rename              Revisit             Reentry

A. Reconsider the current policy of mandatory minimums for mere “unlawful” gun possession.

              Rationale:

  1. Non-violent offenders held in prison at taxpayer expense for lengths of time equivalent to millions of dollars is a waste of taxpayer dollars, which could be spent on education, community improvement, counseling, or career readiness programs.
  2. Incarceration and felony label lock-out result in loss of earning potential for affected families.
  3. Countless children have lost parents to incarceration for little more than possession with no guarantee there was illicit intent. Moreover, violence does not only occur at the hands of formerly incarcerated individuals.
  4. Families are often destroyed due to severe financial losses resulting from extremely high bonds, absence of financial support, felony label lock-out, attorney's fees, and court costs.

B. Rename the charge to reflect the actual crime:

  1. His offense should be called unlawful possession of a weapon (UPW)
  2. It should not be called aggravated unlawful use of a weapon (AGG UUW), which sensationalizes what actually occurred and essentially says the weapon was used even when it wasn’t.
  3. Words have power. And, with the current language, it is evident the wording has been chosen with the intent to cause aggravated harm to the charged individual.

Rationale:

  • A charge should reflect the behavior that elicited the charge
  • A charge that indicates a behavior that did not occur is a lie.

C. Revisit the penalty for breaking established law (statute):

              Possible Options:

  1. Upon discovery (by legal means, e.g. no pretext stops or 4th amendment violations) by a peace officer of an unregistered weapon and unlicensed gun owner, the individual, granted there are no criminal gun charges (where a firearm was discharged in pursuit of a victim or other reckless misconduct) on his record, authorities confiscate the weapon. Then, the individual is required to pay for and attend firearms training and obtain licensing and registration.
  2. Misdemeanor
  3. Probationable
  4. Required community service
  5. Short term felony convictions (of not more than one year) that can fall off after requisite time and be sealed/expunged

D. Reentry into full citizenship:

  1. Reinstatement of all constitutional rights
  2. No bar to employment, housing, or educational opportunities;
  3. Eligible for a clean slate
  4. Required firearms training at the offender’s expense
  5. Required immediate licensing and registration of any newly acquired firearms...
  6. Upon legalization and registration of any and all firearms, persons later caught in possession of, or use of, illegally obtained or unregistered weapons face stiffer penalties ranging from loss of privilege to rehabilitative imprisonment, to longer standing punitive consequences

Rationale:

  • A law banning one from legal gun ownership prevents an individual from protecting himself and his family from being criminally assaulted, robbed, or threatened.
  • A law permanently banning one from legal gun ownership does not prevent an individual from obtaining a weapon illegally, thereby illegally deferring to illicit sales and enhancing the number of unregistered weapons on the street.
  • A law permanently banning one from legal gun ownership prevents one from protecting his home and family in a manner commensurate and equal to best protections of other citizens. It essentially says, one man can protect his home in this manner, but you can't.
  • A law permanently banning one from legal gun ownership, does not support criminal justice reform and ultimately perpetuates criminal activity that leads directly to future incarceration of individuals who want nothing more than to have their constitutional rights reinstated after their penalties have been paid. 
  • A law that offers positive incentives for adherence to the law is likely to be more effective in reducing criminal activity than the mere threat of incarceration due to non-adherence.
  • The threat of incarceration, akin to the threat of the death penalty, is not a deterrent and presumes an individual will be caught breaking the law.
  • There are always those more apt to take a chance rather than be unarmed and unable to defend themselves against others who have no regard for, or intention of, following any established law.       
  • We are entitled to be human and make mistakes, and then, because we are human, atone for those mistakes.

This is my story:

My son, who is 26 years old, has a non-violent, victimless felony.  My son also has 3 children in the state of Illinois who cannot rely on him as yet to provide sufficiently for them due to the current system of lock-out.  My son has acquired several certificates in pursuit of work opportunities:

  • He completed coursework and is certified by Oaksterdam University
  • He completed responsible dispensary training for the State of IL
  • He is forklift certified
  • He is OSHA certified
  • He completed requirements at the Safer Foundation to qualify for CDL training, for which they have not followed through 
  • He takes as many jobs as he can from PeopleReady, however, they have changed the structure of their program and the work is sparse to just about absent.
  • He acquired his TiPS certificate and works for a company that serves refreshments to patrons at various city and suburban engagements

My son attempted to work for Levy at the United Center (to serve refreshments to patrons), but was denied the opportunity because he has a felony: a non-violent, victimless felony.  He can't work for IRCA (providing equipment set-up for cheerleading competitions); he can't work for Instacart; he can't work for Uber or Uber Eats; He can't work for Lyft; he can't rent rooms from Air BnB, and the list goes on.  No one cares why he has the felony.  No one cares that the only reason my son ever acquired a weapon was because someone shot at him the same year he started College and he was traumatized and afraid to leave the house to the extent he essentially dropped out of school.  It doesn’t matter that he panicked and purchased a weapon, not thinking of applying for a permit, especially in light of the fact the individuals who shot at him, shooting out my car windshield, were still free and harassing him.  It doesn’t matter that we went to the police because, without names and addresses, nothing could be done.  And even if we had provided names and addresses, the aggressors would have only been aggravated by the "snitch" and continued to threaten my son.  The police told my son he could just “Lay low.” Well, a lot of good that did.  My son purchased a weapon so he would feel safe to leave the house to work and just live again.  Unfortunately for him, in a standard, racially profiled, pre-text vehicle stop, my son’s gun was found.  It wasn’t out in the open, it wasn’t in his pocket or on his hip.  It was buried so deeply into the dashboard, the insistent cop had to literally destroy the dashboard to find it.  There was no intent to harm anyone. 

Sadly, simultaneously, my son was addicted to opiates, the ones that are legal for pharmacies to sell, that can be obtained on the street for 5 dollars a pill.  He used them to calm his anxiety about leaving the house.  Under the influence, he was not thinking as he should have been.  No one cares about his story.  All that matters is he had an unregistered weapon and so now, afraid to fight in court and lose and spend more time in prison, he took the favored prosecutorial plea: Guilty, felon for life.  As a result, my son has struggled to put his life back together with me as the only help he has because his father abandoned him when he was 13 years old and I was unable to secure help to mentor my son. And, here, let me tell you another short story.  In 1992 (before mandatory minimums), in an amazing coincidence, my son's father was stopped for a traffic violation.  He also had a gun in his car for protection.  He was arrested, charged with having a weapon in his car, the police took his weapon, and then they let him go.  He was not made to serve jail time and he was never judged to be a felon.  He was able to reset, get legal permission to carry a weapon, and move on with his life without the roadblocks his son now faces at every turn.  The same "crime" with very different results.  He has never been arrested again.   

I am overextended paying for my adult son to live.  I help him in every way I know how, but I also have two other children, who are doing very well, but to whom I cannot give my all because my adult son still needs so much of my time and assistance.  I work every day to help him be self-sufficient.  And, don’t believe for one minute he is not doing what he can to assist.  I have been fighting for my son since he started public school at the age of five.  I also know that I am not alone.  There are other mothers here who are struggling with this or similar issues because of the 80% of black men from Chicago who have some connection with the penal system (Alexander, 2011).  Something must change.  Felonies for non-violent, victimless “crimes” must change!  I quote “crime” because when no one was hurt, no one was violated, nothing was stolen, no harm was intended, then in truth, no criminal behavior occurred.  This is a violation of a statute and statutory violations such as this should not lock individuals out of the opportunity to redeem themselves and contribute positively to society. 

In closing, I reiterate the following: Felony label lock-out and incarceration for non-violent, victimless crimes don't just affect the offenders, who are often traumatized from being incarcerated with more hardened offenders, but they affect their entire support system and their progeny.  We need to do better, and I ask that you join me in attempting to change the current, standing policy.  Thank you.

Mom of 3, MA Counseling, M.Ed Education, BA Political Science

References

Alexander, M. (2011, January 11). MLK 2011 Tribute : Heal the World | Keynote Address. United States of America. Retrieved from http://video.wpt.org/video/1748253821/

Bill Status of SB0100. (2020, April 1). Retrieved from Illinois General Assembly:    http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp              DocTypeID=SB&DocNum=100&GAID=13&SessionID=88&LegID=83402