NEAR WEST SIDE — The mayor and a West Side congressman Friday cheered the expansion of city job and housing programs for ex-offenders to help their re-entry into society.
"The City of Chicago is leading the way on this," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago), calling it "one of the most pernicious issues facing Americans today."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel quoted Davis in saying, "If you want to make sure an ex-offender is not a repeat offender, start with a job."
The mayor and the congressman touted city job programs that will serve almost 2,200 former inmates this year, more than double the 900 the city handled in 2011.
According to Emanuel's office, in recent years the city has processed 300 ex-offenders at its two re-entry centers. The city will add two more centers this year, with plans to process 900, three times the previous number. It will also double a City Colleges program for training ex-offenders from 100 former inmates to 200.
The Chicago Transit Authority's Second Chance Program, catering to ex-offenders, expanded to 265 people last year and will remain at that level this year after it recently received union approval. A city job placement program will likewise remain steady this year, handling 650 ex-offenders.
The Chicago Housing Authority, which has previously enforced strict rules against felons, would initiate a three-year pilot program reuniting 50 ex-offenders with their families "if they make the choice to work," Emanuel added. "So both the job door and the housing door are not closed, but open."
Davis called the CHA program "a real breakthrough." Emanuel added that he intended to see that the pilot program was successful and would be made permanent.
Emanuel and Davis touted the programs through a roundtable discussion with six ex-felons, most products of the CTA program, at St. Leonard's Ministries on the Near West Side. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) also sat in on the discussion in his ward, as he's been a vocal proponent of ex-offender programs as a pardoned former felon himself.
"Troubled past, now a bright future," said the CTA's Alphonso Johnson, who later cracked the mayor up by saying, "I went from a Link card to a debit card," referring to the state-issued Link card used to distribute food stamps.
Johnson completed the program, and now works cleaning "L" cars.
All emphasized the importance of getting the estimated 21,000 former inmates a year returning to the city to lead responsible lives and not return to crime.
"They need to be welcomed," Davis said. "They need to have barriers removed."
"We need more of these programs," Johnson added.
Emanuel, however, emphasized that the programs only helped those who first make the decision to help themselves in what he called "that 'aha' moment when people make a choice.
"It's not about government funding. It's about committing to change," he added. "The first step is taking responsibility."
Davis said it was essential "there was somebody there to help you once you've made that decision, and that's what these programs are about."