It’s easy to get cynical about Illinois politics.
Frustration is the norm in Springfield. Optimism is an emotional liability.
But Lisa Creason doesn’t play by those rules. When it comes to politics in the Land of Lincoln, the single mom from Decatur just pulled off the biggest underdog story of 2016. She drove to Springfield nearly every day of legislative session for two years to fight for her family.
And she won.
Lisa’s story is one of redemption, starting with a crime she committed more than 20 years ago.
She stole money from a Subway cash register when she was 19 to buy food for her newborn daughter. She spent one year in prison.
A stray bullet killed her fiancé in 2002. She raised three kids on her own, started an anti-violence nonprofit and went to nursing school.
On the day she graduated, she called her mother in tears. She thought she could finally move her children out of Section 8 housing, out of a dangerous neighborhood and off government assistance. She thought her hard work had finally paid off.
But then, it all came tumbling down.
Because of a law passed in 2011, Lisa’s teenage crime denied her the chance to apply for the state license she needed to become a registered nurse.
“To be told after all we’ve been through that I wasn’t good enough … it was devastating,” she said.
But she didn’t give up. Instead, she began fighting for Senate Bill 42, which would allow ex-offenders such as herself to apply for a license to work in the health care field after a post-conviction waiting period.
After an ex-offender’s application is received, the state licensing board would still consider a number of factors in granting the license, such as the seriousness of the offense, overall criminal history, whether restitution was made to a victim and signs of rehabilitation.
But Lisa has bona fides in spades.
Amy Snyder is Lisa’s former caseworker, and frequent co-pilot on her trips to Springfield. She’s proud of the example Lisa sets for others, showing it’s possible to break a cycle of crime and dependency with a positive attitude and a giving spirit.
Lieutenant Shane Brandel of the Decatur Police Department is proud of Lisa’s tenacity. The two have been close since Brandel investigated the death of Lisa’s fiancé.
“I applaud her for her efforts,” he said. “Most people would just give up.”
Unfortunately, hopelessness is a major byproduct of Illinois’ criminal-justice system.
Of the 30,000 people who leave Illinois prisons each year, nearly half return within three years. Studies show as many as 60 percent to 75 percent of former offenders are unemployed a year after their release.
Thankfully, Lisa has been able to work as a nursing assistant for more than a decade. A job can make all the difference between a life of freedom and a life of crime.
Illinois ex-offenders who are employed a year after release have a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent, according to research from the Safer Foundation. It’s concerning then that Illinois has at least 118 professional and business licenses applicants can or must be denied due to their criminal history.
That’s why reforms such as SB 42 are so important. That’s why instead of leaving the state for greener pastures, Lisa stood and fought for more than just herself.
“This isn’t just me,” Lisa said. “There are all types of productive careers that ex-offenders are prevented from pursuing. It’s time we stop beating the same drum. It’s not working, and the music is not pretty.”
It’s been more than a year since SB 42 passed out of the Illinois Senate. On May 26, 2016, it passed the House. And as of June 1, the only hurdle that remains is the governor’s signature.
To Lisa and Illinoisans like her, it’s more than a bill.
In a state that’s short on opportunities, it’s reason to hope.
Austin Berg, writer for Illinois Policy Institute