When Darius Digby finished his prison sentence at Illinois River Correctional Center last fall, he took a job at a soap distribution factory in suburban La Grange. Two weeks in, the company contacted him, saying that due to his background, they had to let him go.
“Just like that,” said Digby, 29. “I was really getting the hang of it, waking up every day and going to work.”
That’s when childhood friend James Webb suggested Digby apply for a job at the spray foam insulation company where Webb was working. He told Digby the company’s owner hires and trains formerly incarcerated individuals.
Digby applied, got trained and has been an assistant installer for Highland Park-based Chicago Green Insulation since July.
“I feel good, because I’m getting a second chance,” said Digby, adding that he never imagined he would get a decent paycheck to be able to support his two school-age children. They live with their grandmother after their mother died while Digby was still in prison.
“Now that I got this job now, I’m more stable and I could do more for my kids and my family,” Digby said. “I never thought I’d be stable like I am now.”
The challenges of finding work for returning citizens like Digby have been well documented, with the national unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated residents standing at about 27%, compared to 5% in the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan think tank.
Now, Illinois lawmakers and advocates hope the proposed SAFER Communities Act will further help returning citizens — while at the same time helping small businesses and communities, too.
State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, is the bill’s sponsor. He said the proposal is “kind of a twofold initiative where, yes, we’re addressing traditional challenges with returning citizens, but also turning to community revitalization as it relates to criminal justice reform.”
Slaughter said Illinois has made strides with efforts such as the “ban the box” legislation, which limits the employer’s ability to ask formerly incarcerated job seekers about their backgrounds early in the application process. And he said even though there are many training programs for returning citizens, the SAFER Communities Act “goes further in that it goes beyond training actually puts the individual in the job.”
Essentially, it works like a voucher program because the wage subsidy follows the individual. For example, someone like Digby would have an $850 voucher that he could bring to Chicago Green Insulation. The company would use it as a subsidy for a defined period of time. The proposed bill would also give the company a onetime $2,500 tax credit to hire and train Digby.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a program where the individual can … go wherever they actually want to, so that’s somewhat innovative and creative,” Slaughter said.
He added that he has been working with the House speaker’s office to prioritize the bill for the state’s veto session, which starts Nov. 15.
For small businesses, the SAFER Communities Act provides an incentive to tap into a larger labor pool, according to Small Business Advocacy Council President Elliot Richardson.
He says a lot of businesses he represents have struggled in the current labor market.
“Small businesses are having a tremendously difficult time finding employees, and that is impacting their operations,” Richardson said. “You see businesses that are closed on various days during the week, or opening later [because] they cannot adequately staff.”
Richardson said feedback from businesses that have brought on returning citizens as employees has been “generally very, very positive, that these folks … are loyal, dedicated, hardworking employees.”
In addition to helping small businesses fill positions in a tight market, Richardson touted the bill’s potential to help create revenue for the state and reduce costs associated with incarceration.
“You’re taking formerly incarcerated folks that might wind up going back to jail and you’re getting them good jobs, where they can contribute,” Richardson said.
Antonio Lightfoot, organizing director for the nonprofit Workers Center for Racial Justice, was part of a group that helped craft the SAFER Communities Act.
He said giving returning citizens good jobs would improve public safety in many communities.
“Most of the crimes in our neighborhoods, Black and brown neighborhoods, [are] crimes of poverty,” Lightfoot said. “We know that if people just had an opportunity to make a decent living, they wouldn’t be risking their life to put food on the table.”
Lightfoot himself had a difficult time finding a job that paid a living wage after returning from prison in 2009. He said incentivizing businesses is the best way to nudge them to hire returning citizens.
“Formerly incarcerated folks are not just this group of people to be thrown away,” Lightfoot said. “We’re very productive members of society, and gainful employment is step one for that.”
That concept is well known to Chicago Green Insulation President Tom Decker.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we hire returning citizens — not everybody is,” Decker said. “I get employers who call me up and ask me about this, and I tell them how and where to go. They’ll call me up six weeks later and say, ‘That’s the best person I’ve hired in the last six months.’ ”
Decker said considering formerly incarcerated applicants is “not a guarantee to finding outstanding employees — I can tell you stories of things that didn’t work out — but it works out more often than it doesn’t.”
For James Webb, one of Decker’s employees, his job at Chicago Green Insulation represents more than a paycheck.
Webb, 29, has an arrest record and struggled with finding a job that paid a living wage before Chicago Green Insulation hired him. He has been working there for almost a year and is now a lead installer and field supervisor, recruiting friends like Darius Digby to the company.
“It’s not all peachy, but it’s work,” Webb said. “And it’s definitely something that I can see myself doing a career with, which I take very seriously.”
Webb said he hopes to be part owner of the company someday and give more people like himself and Digby the chance to earn a decent wage.
“When I talk about what I do, I’m proud to say this is my career and this is my plan,” Webb said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.