'Civics in Prison' Bill Sails Through Illinois Legislature

Sen. Robert Peters, a chief sponsor of HB 2541, meets with advocates for civic education in prison.

Sen. Robert Peters, a chief sponsor of HB 2541, meets with advocates for civic education in prison.

Today, House Bill 2541 (“Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act”) passed the Illinois Senate by a vote of 58-0, and after concurrence will soon head to Governor Pritzker’s desk to be signed into law.

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights released the following statement:

We are overjoyed that the state legislature has approved this bold, innovative, and community-driven proposal, which requires that citizens who are incarcerated within Illinois Department of Corrections or the Department of Juvenile Justice receive peer-led civics education as part of their release. We commend Representative Sonya Harper and Senator Robert Peters for their leadership on Illinois House Bill 2541, which earned broad, bipartsan support.

“By investing in our returning citizens, this bill will strengthen the fabric of our democracy,” said Director of Voting Rights & Civic Empowerment Ami Gandhi, who helped write the bill with input from community members with criminal records.

“It is so disheartening to hear someone say ‘I didn’t know I could vote’, or that ‘my vote doesn’t matter’, or ‘that the system is rigged’,” said Nasir Blackwell, a formerly incarcerated person who co-founded Danville Prison Veterans’ organization DANVETS and now advocates for returning citizens at Inner-City Muslim Action Network. “The Re-Entering Citizen Civic Education Act will not only educate men and women on their rights as a voter, but the program will engage men and women around government and societal affairs.”

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee is especially proud of the collaborative process that produced this legislation, with key partners including Dr. Christina Rivers of DePaul University, Chicago Votes, and Just Democracy Illinois. We look forward to continued collaboration with Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, as we look toward implementation by 2020.

“Nationwide, there's an increasingly strong momentum among formerly incarcerated individuals toward positive civic and community engagement. HB2541 will help keep Illinois at the forefront of such efforts,” said Dr. Christina Rivers of DePaul University.

While Illinois citizens are eligible to vote after incarceration, most people with past criminal records believe they are disqualified from voting. The civics curriculum mandated by HB 2541 will cover voting process, government, and current affairs and will be provided within 12 months before a person’s scheduled discharge. A list of legislative sponsors and organizational supporters can be found here.

"The people who have served time in IDOC and IDJJ have the lived experiences that our democracy desperately needs to hear," said Chicago Votes Deputy Director Jen Dean. "We want to ensure when people have served their time they are ready, prepared, and excited to vote."