At age twelve, Tony Graham was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana around his neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. By his late twenties his drug-usage was out of control.
“I was consuming about a sixteenth of cocaine, about an ounce of weed, and about a fifth of cognac on a daily basis,” he said. Addiction led to legal trouble for Graham: by then he had been arrested a number of times for marijuana possession, and had received a misdemeanor battery charge when he got into a fight with his cousin’s girlfriend.
But Graham into more serious trouble when he met a lawyer who told him he would be compensated if he pretended to have gotten into a car accident. Graham lied to a doctor, checked into a hospital briefly, and six months later, received a check.
It was followed soon after by a visit from the police -- and a felony conviction (his first and only). Tony Graham had been a bit player in a massive auto insurance scam.
“That isn’t really who I am,” Graham recalled. “But at this particular time I was so caught up in the throws of my addiction all I knew was this was the opportunity to get some easy money. And I took it. Unfortunately.”
That was in 1986.
Since then, Graham has turned his life around. He says he’s been sober since shortly after his arrest. He has a house in the village of Hazel Crest outside of Chicago. His son and daughter are both in college. He’s a practicing Jehovah’s Witness.
Graham had worked in the insurance industry for decades, largely in commercial underwriting, and In 2013 he was hired to help people enroll in Obamacare, working out of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart building.
The job required an insurance producer’s license from the state.
Graham said that, all these years later, he didn’t think his criminal record would be a problem. His position would not have him dealing directly with money. He and his employer obtained a “certificate of good conduct” from a Cook County judge. And his years of clean living and rehabilitation seemed to be paying off. After a review, the insurance board recommended he receive the license.
But the then-insurance commissioner, Andrew Boron, overruled the board’s recommendation, saying in part that Graham’s history showed a “troubling pattern of criminal acts.”
“I was sick to my stomach. I was devastated,” Graham said. “I had done everything I can to be a productive citizen.”
He lost his job when he could not obtain that license.
In Illinois, 25 percent of all workers require a license to do there job, according to a recent White House report.
If you want to be a roofer, or a barber, or even paint nails--you need a license. And many licenses can be withheld for a wide range of past convictions, no matter how old they are.
“How long is enough? How long are we going to stop people from being able to make money, to carry on their family's business?” asks Sodiqa Williams with the Safer Foundation, a Chicago based organization that helps people with criminal records find employment.
The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) issues most of the state’s occupational licenses. According to data it provided to WBEZ, of the 20,113 applications for licensure the department received from April 2015 to April 2016, only 197 had a conviction history.
By comparison, roughly 30,000 inmates are released from Illinois prisons each year.
IDFPR data indicates that 86 of those 197 applicants with a conviction were issued a license. And none were denied. But most, 111 applicants, were put into the “pending” category.--where an application can sit for up to three years before expiring.
Applicants to the department who have a conviction automatically undergo a more extensive review process, according to IDFPR spokesperson Terry Horstman. The department could not provide the status of pending applications by conviction history.
“We certainly are not looking to impede one’s practice,” said Horstman. “At the same time however, we must safeguard the interests of the general public. So it’s a fine line between the two sides. ”
Sodiqa Williams with the Safer Foundation said those numbers indicate a lot of people with criminal records aren’t applying for the licenses.
“If the thought is we are going to protect public health and safety…. [and]if you have a whole group of people who aren’t even applying for a license because they think they can’t get it--that’s a problem.”
As of Tuesday, a bill was making its way through the Illinois statehouse that, if signed into law, would make it easier for ex-offenders to get an occupational license in barbering, cosmetology, roofing, and funeral home directing. The bill would bar the IDFPR from denying occupational license applications to people with a criminal record if their conviction wasn’t “directly related” to the profession. It would also require IDFPR to issue a written decision if it did reject an applicant on the basis of their criminal record, as well as mandate a yearly report from the department on those decisions.
The bill wouldn’t do anything for the the dozens of other professions, like insurance, that require a license in the state. Illinois Representative Marcus Evans is sponsoring the bill in the house.
“We have these four categories which will provide more opportunities, and I think hopefully we can build on that,” he said. “Going through the legislative process you can’t always get everything you want. But as long as we are moving in the right direction I am reasonably satisfied. And hopefully we can get more in the future.”
After Tony Graham was denied his insurance producer’s license, he was unemployed for a while. He almost lost his house. But he eventually found work: driving for the rideshare service Uber.
Graham said there are things he likes about the job-- like not having to wear a suit to work, and getting to talk to people. But he would be making a lot more money working out of the Merchandise Mart right now. And he wishes he had the option to do so.
“People do change. You know. But how can a person change if you don’t allow a person to be a part of society due to the fact that you have a criminal background? Even though it's ten, twenty, thirty years later. Come on man, what are you supposed to do? What?”
Miles Bryan is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Find him on twitter at @miles__bryan