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New Illinois Laws: Health and Justice Highlights

(Chicago) - More than 500 bills were signed into law during Illinois’ spring 2019 legislative session, including the following legislation related to health and justice. All of these laws will go into effect on January 1, 2020, unless otherwise noted. 

Removing Barriers to Employment

Context: Barriers to employment are among the thousands of potential collateral consequences faced by people with criminal records. A 2018 Prison Policy Initiative analysis found that the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people was nearly five times higher than the rate among the general public. People with criminal records who want to work in certain career fields, such as healthcare, can face additional barriers. The Safer Foundation estimates that more than 93,000 jobs will need to be filled in the healthcare industry by 2026. 

Senate Bill 1965 (Public Act 101-0176), which went into effect on July 31, seeks to remove some of these employment barriers by improving the process by which people with criminal records can obtain waivers that allow them to work in certain healthcare jobs. It creates a “timelier and efficient health care waiver application process, expands the list of eligible organizations that can initiate a fingerprint-based background check and those that can request waivers to include workforce intermediaries and pro bono legal service organization, and allows people with disqualifying conditions to obtain waivers before receiving a job offer,” according to the Governor’s office

Another new law, Senate Bill 0156 (Public Act 101-0397), also aims to increase employment and reduce recidivism by providing access to job search and career-building websites for people preparing to leave prison.

Removing Barriers to Healthcare

Context: In most states, people who are incarcerated must pay medical co-pays for physician visits, medications, dental treatment, and other health services. Even a small co-pay can be cost prohibitive for incarcerated people who have jobs that pay less than a dollar per hour. According to a 2018 John Howard Association survey of people held in Illinois state prisons, more than 60 percent of respondents said they avoided seeking healthcare due to costs. Recognizing that barriers to care may jeopardize the health of incarcerated people, as well as prison staff and the public, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care opposes the establishment of a fee-for-service or co-payment programs that restrict access to care.

House Bill 2045 (Public Act 101-0086) seeks to reduce barriers to care by eliminating co-pays for people in Illinois prisons and juvenile facilities. 

Another new law, Senate Bill 1744 (Public Act 101-0351), aims to increase access to healthcare for people transitioning from prison to the community. SB 1744 builds upon previous legislation meant to facilitate health insurance enrollment for people as they prepare for reentry. The new law requires IDOC to help eligible individuals apply for Medicaid before they are released. Access to healthcare can help people more successfully transition from prisons and into their communities.

Voting and Civic Education

Context: In Illinois, an arrest or criminal record does not bar someone from voting as it can in many other states. Under state law, individuals who are detained in jail but have not been convicted (such as people awaiting adjudication) are eligible to vote. Individuals who are convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail or prison temporarily lose the right to vote while incarcerated, but this right is automatically restored upon release. However, many Illinoisans mistakenly believe that they do not have the right to vote due to a criminal record. Furthermore, very few Illinois counties ensure that voting is accessible to people detained in jail pre-trial who retain the right to vote.

Two new state laws are meant to help improve access to voting and civic education for people with criminal records.

Senate Bill 2090 (Public Act 101-0442) requires local election authorities to work with county jails to develop a vote-by-mail system for eligible voters who are detained in jail. Additionally, Cook County must establish a polling place inside the county jail. The new law also requires that county jails provide voter registration applications to eligible voters who request an application, and instructs jails and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) to provide eligible voters with applications upon release from jail or prison. 

House Bill 2541 (Public Act 101-0441), the Reentering Citizens Civics Education Act, requires IDOC and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) to provide a civics education program for people who are scheduled to be released within 12 months. The sessions will include information on voting rights, governmental institutions, and current affairs, and will be taught by incarcerated peer educators who are trained by non-partisan civic organizations.

Children and Parents

Context: The effects of incarceration extend beyond the incarcerated individual. Multiple studies show that parental incarceration can have profound, negative effects on children, such increased rates of substance use and anxiety. Keeping families together and examining the impact of parental incarceration are at the forefront of two new Illinois bills.  

House Bill 2444 (Public Act 101-0471), also known as the Children’s Best Interest Act, requires judges to take into consideration the impact of parental incarceration on children whose well-being will be negatively impacted by the parent’s absence when considering a prison sentence. The bill provides that individuals have the right to present a "family impact statement" at sentencing and requires the court to consider it. The bill also covers people caring for elderly and ill relatives.

House Bill 2649 (Public Act 101-0480), which took effect on August 23, created the Task Force on Children of Incarcerated Parents. The purpose of the task force is to help improve understanding of how children of incarcerated parents experience harm and trauma. The group, which held its first meeting on September 20, will identify and recommend effective interventions to improve the lives of these children.

Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction

Context: The number of opioid overdose deaths in Illinois more than doubled between 2013 to 2017, when 2,202 residents died. In 2018, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported a 1.6% decrease in opioid overdose deaths among state residents, the first such decline in five years. Nonetheless, 2,167 lives were still lost in 2018, and the decrease in the number of deaths was concentrated among non-Hispanic white residents. Deaths among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic residents continued to increase in 2018.

Senate Bill 1828 (Public Act 101-0356), the Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction Act, went into effect on August 9. The law authorizes needle and hypodermic syringe access programs. Previously, needle exchange programs could only be established in Illinois as part of lawful research, teaching, or chemical analysis. Needle exchange programs have proven effective in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis infection among people who inject drugs. 

The new law also provides additional support to overdose prevention programs and projects by encouraging promotion of and training on best practices.

Cannabis Legalization and Record Expungement

Illinois became the eleventh state to legalize recreational cannabis through House Bill 1438 (Public Act 101-0027), the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. Sales and possession of specified limits of cannabis will be legal in the state as of January 1, 2020.

The Office of the Governor released a summary of the new law, including its provisions for clearing eligible arrest and conviction records related to cannabis possession. Roughly 700,000 records are eligible for expungement under the new law. Approximately 405,000 records are eligible for automatic expungement or clemency. For individuals who are trying to clear their record, there are government agencies and legal aid organizations that may be able to provide information or assistance at low cost or for free.

The new law also establishes the Restore, Reinvest and Renew (R3) Grant Program to address the impact of economic disinvestment, violence, and the historical overuse of the criminal justice system. Twenty-five percent of state cannabis revenue will be transferred to the Criminal Justice Information Projects Fund to support the R3 program and fund strategies that focus on violence prevention, reentry, and health services.

Under the new law, 20 percent of revenues generated by legalization will be allocated to funding for substance use and mental health prevention and treatment.

The Illinois General Assembly is expected to return to Springfield on October 28 for its veto session.

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