NORMAL — Police chiefs at several Illinois schools, including Illinois State University, say a proposal to bar colleges from asking about a person's criminal history in student applications would hurt campus safety efforts.
But supporters of Illinois House Bill 217 say there is no evidence that asking the question protects public safety. A similar bill passed in the House in 2017 but didn't get final approval.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, sponsor of the bill that would create the Criminal History in College Applications Act.
ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff is among those opposed to the bill.
He asked, “Why on one hand would you say we have to improve universities' responses to sexual assaults and, on the other hand, take away the ability to ask about criminal histories?”
Likewise, Chris Ballard, director of public safety and chief of police at Millikin University in Decatur, said, “This prohibition would create a significant barrier to ensuring a safe environment for all students, faculty and staff on higher education campuses.”
Flowers said those who have served their sentences have already paid their debt to society and are trying to support themselves and their families by getting an education.
Woodruff said, “Survivors of sexual assault ask, 'Why are they more concerned about a rapist's rights than mine?' and I don't have an answer for them.”
Checking “yes” on the criminal history box does not automatically deny acceptance — a point noted on applications such as ISU's — but it does trigger further inquiry.
Eastern Illinois University Police Chief Kent Martin said if a student indicates they have a felony conviction, the university requests further information, such as how long ago the conviction occurred, and makes decisions on a case-by-case basis. ISU follows a similar process.
Of about 20,000 applications received by ISU, 150 marked the box in 2018 and only six were denied admission.
Ballard said he is aware of fewer than six “yes” answers in the last three years at Millikin, and no one was denied admission.
Martin said the number has been "so negligible that EIU retains no practical data in that regard."
However, Flowers and supporters of her bill said the presence of the question is a deterrent to people applying.
“They don't go any further. It's like a freeze,” she said.
Flowers considers inclusion of the question “rather racist,” because it has a disproportionate effect on people of color. She said it is “a carry on of the Jim Crow laws.”
The bill passed out of the Higher Education Committee earlier this month on an 11-8 vote. A vote in the full House has not been scheduled.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, a member of the committee, voted against it, saying it “ties the hands of the universities” and has “a potential for putting students and others on campus at a greater risk.”
But Flowers argued that anyone can walk on a college campus, regardless of whether they are a student, and commit a crime.
Woodruff said the criminal history question is more important at schools such as ISU where most students live on or near campus than it might be at a commuter institution.
Brady said the bill is "well-intentioned" and "I think there's room for further negotiation."
Woodruff said a possible compromise would be to limit questions to violent crimes and sexual offenses.