The state’s regulating agency has simplified the forms for professional licensure for applicants with criminal convictions to encourage greater participation in the review process, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced this past week.

A spokesman for the agency said that the change on the forms was prompted by feedback from advocates who expressed that the paperwork was overly complex, burdensome and intimidating.

Less than 1 percent of applicants with a conviction who complete the process are denied licensure, but many do not complete the requisite review process, the department said in a news release.

Individuals with felony criminal records, generally speaking, are required to jump through a few more hoops than those without. That includes additional paperwork and often a face-to-face meeting with the governing board overseeing the career field in which the applicant seeks licensure.

Dozens of career fields in Illinois require state licensure. Examples of such jobs are barbers, mental health therapists, massage therapists, dentists, doctors, nurses, real estate professionals, roofing contractors and veterinarians.

To address the issue and encourage applicants’ participation, the department, according to its release, has adopted the use of less formal “legalese” in cover letters, added the contact number for the agent assigned to review the application and updated correspondence to note that a conviction does not usually result in denial of licensure.

A criminal conviction is not the only reason an application’s submission for licensure may prompt additional review, but it is among the more common reasons. The sentence added to the letter generated when additional review is initiated because of a conviction reads: “This inquiry usually does not result in denial of your licensure so you are strongly advised to cooperate with the department.”

The sentence is underlined for emphasis.

The department stated that the changes are part of ongoing efforts by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration and the Illinois Criminal Justice Reform Commission to remove unnecessary barriers to those convicted of crimes from obtaining professional licenses.

Rauner has charged the commission with issuing recommendations that could reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2025. Several of the commission’s recommendations in its initial December 2015 report were things that could be addressed administratively, without changes to law, such as clarifying the process for licensure for people with records.

Another round of recommendations are expected in the coming months that are likely to address more challenging reforms such as as mandatory minimums and potential changes to drug laws.

Pam Rodriguez, president of TASC, which stands for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, said access to employment for people with felony records is a critical component to improving the state’s recidivism rate.

Rodriguez, who is a member of the governor’s task force, said this is one of several initiatives the administration has taken to ease the transition for people reintegrating into society after prison. Others include making sure people have access to an official form of identification and are enrolled in any health insurance programs for which they may apply immediately upon their exit.

The first few months after an individual is released from prison are critical to his or her success with reintegration, she said. Having a steady income is a huge part of the equation. “If they don’t have employment fast, everything starts to unravel,” she said.

Rauner said in a statement that the change provides for “real change” by aiding the pathway to employment for “those who may have a blemish on their record.”

IDFPR Secretary Bryan Schneider, secretary of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said that as the state’s regulator, “it is our job to facilitate options to licensure, not impede one's practice.”

“While individuals with a criminal conviction in their past will require a more extensive review by the department, it does not mean they cannot obtain a license,” Schneider said. “By effectively communicating this through our application process, we hope to not only increase the number of licensed professionals, but create a regulatory environment conducive to strong economic growth and opportunity.”

Officials with IDFPR and the Illinois Department of Corrections previously announced a joint initiative to allow individuals to meet with the Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Board as part of the review process while they are still in prison. This allows licenses falling under this board’s purview to be issued immediately upon an approved individual’s return to society.

Thus far, the department has issued once such license under that new rule, a cosmetology license to Landus Jackson of Cairo. IDFPR spokesman Terry Horstman said there are at least another 11 inmates who have fulfilled all educational and examination requirements and have received a letter from the IDFPR to proceed with the licensure review process.

The only courses offered in Illinois prisons at this time that allow for a pathway to licensure are: cosmetology, barber and nail technician. Horstman said the department is open to reviewing an expansion of the inmate licensure program to additional IDFPR licensed professions should educational avenues become available within state correctional facilities.

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