When Lisa Creason was a 19-year-old single mom, she robbed a Subway shop. Or, at least, she tried to. One evening in 1993, she walked in without a plan, without an ultimatum, and demanded money from the cash register. When she was denied, she took off.
That spontaneous decision, which she said she made out of desperation to provide for her baby girl, would cost her for the next two decades.
But it never defined her.
On Thursday, Creason, now a 43-year-old mother of three and a nursing school graduate, stood tearfully beside Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. She watched as he signed a law that would give her the second chance she’d been working toward since she left prison.
Creason served just a year on a felony charge for attempted robbery, but in ways she couldn’t have known at the time, it turned out to be closer to a life sentence. The conviction would be on her permanent record, and by state law, it would bar her from work requiring a professional license.
It didn’t matter that after leaving jail, Creason volunteered to talk to at-risk youths, warning them about the repercussions of their actions. Or that she started a nonprofit to help kids who lost parents to gun violence after her fiance was killed by a stray bullet while sitting on their front stoop in 2002. Or that she did those things while holding down restaurant and cashier jobs to support her family.
After her fiance’s death, she wanted to find a stable career to move her children out of their dangerous neighborhood and to get off government assistance, she said. So, in 2005, she decided to become a nurse. She first received a nursing assistant certificate. She took a job in a local nursing home while going to school part time to take the prerequisite classes to get into a nursing program. It wasn’t until 2012 that she was able to enroll in a community college nursing program.
When she passed her last final two years later, she called her mother crying. Finally, she thought, she would be able to give her children a better life. She even drove through better neighborhoods, fantasizing about their new life.
But she didn’t know that in 2011, Illinois had passed a law that added felonies, including attempted robbery, to the list of crimes that barred people from obtaining health-care licenses. After she sent in her forms to take the state-mandated board tests, she received a letter that she was ineligible.
“I was devastated. I was absolutely devastated,” Creason said in an interview. “And then I got mad. I did everything the right way. I worked the measly jobs. I don’t want to be on government assistance. But at the same time, I knew that my feeling [angry] wasn’t an action move; it wasn’t going to get me to the next level. I couldn’t stay in that mind frame for too long.”
She started doing some research on the statute — while in prison, she had taken paralegal courses — and called the state department that deals with professional regulations. She asked what she could do.
The woman on the phone told her that she could get her record cleared or get the law changed and then chuckled, Creason said.
The next week, Creason visited the state capitol.
She had no idea how to lobby politicians, but she knew she had to get her story in front of lawmakers.
“The law they passed in 2011 had a tremendous amount of unintended consequences, and they had to realize that,” she said. “No one wants to keep people on government assistance.”
In Illinois, about a quarter of all jobs require an occupational license, yet at least 118 of those licenses can be denied to people with a felony record, said Bryant Jackson-Green of the Illinois Policy Institute. That includes not only health-care work but also jobs in cosmetology and geology. Also on the list: lottery ticket agent, bingo conductor, dance hall operator and athletic trainer.
More than 300,000 people are released from Illinois prisons in a given year. Nationally, close to 75 percent remain unemployed a year after they’re released. Nearly 50 percent return to prison within three years, Jackson-Green said.
“It’s hard enough to find work with a criminal record without the state and local government basically blocking you from doing a job,” Jackson-Green said. “You can’t keep them out of the job market and keep crime down. This is a no-brainer. We need to encourage more work and more employment after incarceration, not discourage it.”
It was the last week of the legislative session in May, and the bill that would give her a second chance had yet to be called to the floor for a vote. Creason had driven to Springfield nearly every day. She’d work the overnight shift at the nursing home, be home in the morning to see her kids off to school and then drive the 45 minutes from Decatur to Springfield. Once, she said, she didn’t sleep for 36 hours.
On the very last day, she decided not to go.
“I was growing extremely frustrated; my spirit was just defeated,” she said. “I told my mom, ‘They’re not going to pass it. I’m going to have to do a whole other year of this.’ ”
She was at work at the nursing home on May 26 when she got a text to turn on the live-stream of the State House proceedings. She watched, surrounded by her co-workers, as her bill passed 71 to 40. Then she broke down in tears.
She cried again Thursday as she watched the governor put pen to paper and make that bill law, a law that will allow her to take her board exams and find a job as a nurse. The signing was held at Richland Community College, where she earned her nursing degree.
“It was surreal to have felt such a joyous emotion at that school when I graduated and to again be at the same school feeling the same emotion now that I’ll finally be able to practice as a nurse,” she said.
The law specifically addresses health-care licenses. To be eligible, more than five years must have passed since an ex-offender’s conviction or more than three years since his or her release from prison, whichever is greater. The law does not apply to sex offenders. The state will still have discretion to deny an application.
The licensing board will review the “seriousness of the offense, whether the applicant has a history of criminal behavior, whether restitution was made to a victim, and signs of rehabilitation before deciding whether to grant the application,” according to the Illinois Policy Institute’s summary. Earlier in the week, the governor also signed a different bill into law that allows former offenders to get licenses in barbering, cosmetology, aesthetics, hair braiding, nail technology, roofing and funeral service.
What made the old laws so unjust, Creason said, is that her children were being punished for something she did as a teenager more than 20 years ago. “It’s the kids who suffer when parents are limited, and they didn’t do anything wrong,” Creason said.
She’s not celebrating quite yet. She said she’ll save that for when she passes her state exam. But she is finally hopeful for the future.
“When people tell you that you can’t do something, you can’t take that at face value and give up,” she said. “I’ve always taught my kids that anything is possible with hard work and determination.”
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