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Trading Johns for Bills

Ex-prostitutes hit Springfield to lobby for a law that would help keep them off the streets.

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At the end of last year Karen Clark heard about a job opening at a nursing home in Rogers Park. The job--overseeing dietary charts so 118 senior residents would get their required diabetic or low-calorie or pureed meals--seemed perfect for her. It was half a block from her apartment, it was full-time, it paid $11.25 an hour, and she was a trained sous chef with 20 years of experience in the food industry, including cooking for a nursing home.

She walked to the home and asked to see the food-service manager. She gave the woman her resume, and they talked for about five minutes. Clark thought the manager seemed impressed with her work history. When she was handed an application, Clark filled it out truthfully, checking the yes box for the question "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Clark's first felony conviction, in 2000, was for drug possession and got her a year's probation. In 2002 she had two felony prostitution convictions. She pleaded guilty to the first one and was sent home. She spent five months in Cook County Jail for the second, and had been looking for honest work since she got out at the end of 2002.

When the manager looked over the application, her expression told Clark everything she needed to know: she didn't stand a chance of getting the job. "She didn't say so, but I could just see it in her face," Clark recalls. She walked away discouraged, thinking, "I guess this is what it's going to be like from now on."

About four months later, on March 24, Clark and her roommate, Betty Prevo, are riding in a gray Ford van headed south on I-55 to Springfield to lobby for Senate Bill 3007. If the bill becomes law, people like Clark and Prevo, who've been convicted of prostitution and minor drug offenses, will be able to appeal to have their criminal records sealed after completing their sentences, which they believe will help them avoid having to admit to their felonies in job applications and give them access to school loans.

Clark, 46, has short, straightened hair that's swept back into a small silver butterfly clip. She's wearing round tortoiseshell glasses and is dressed modestly in a white blouse, a black skirt that falls below her knees, and flat, square-toed shoes. Her legs are bare and her nails, each a different length, are painted red.

She grew up in the Ida B. Wells projects. By the eighth grade she was six feet tall, over 200 pounds, and attracting the worst kind of attention from men. She started turning tricks when she was 15, shortly after she stopped going to high school, and continued for 30 years, primarily on the north side, between Addison and Howard.

For many of those years she also held down regular jobs, mostly in the food-service industry, putting to use the training she'd received as a sous chef through a welfare-to-work program called Project Chance. The jobs paid her living expenses, she says. Turning tricks supported her drug habit. Drugs and prostitution go hand in hand, according to Clark. You've got to be high to turn a trick. And you've got to turn tricks so you can afford to get high.

Prevo, 48, is a large woman with a deep, throaty laugh. She's wearing a red terry-cloth shirt and black slacks. Her hair, braided into cornrows along her scalp, is pulled back into a ponytail. She wears a gold cross pendant around her neck and five gold hoop earrings. A thin scar over her right eyebrow is a remnant of the day a pimp clocked her with a two-by-four. "I'd be so doped up half the time I wouldn't feel the nicks," she says. She turned tricks on the west side for 22 years. One time, not long after breaking both of her arms, her pimp ordered her to go pick up johns. "Can you imagine?" she asks Clark. "In casts! Both my arms!"

A few years ago, they say, police cracked down on prostitution, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods, and began charging repeat offenders with felony prostitution instead of solicitation, a misdemeanor. Before Prevo's felony conviction in 2002 she'd had dozens of solicitation arrests. The most time she ever did for a solicitation charge was two weeks, and usually she was just in jail overnight. For felony prostitution she wound up doing eight months in the penitentiary. Clark had 25 misdemeanor arrests before her felony convictions, each resulting in a day or two in jail, tops. After serving time for their felonies, both were referred to Genesis House, a residential program for women trying to get out of prostitution, where they met and became friends.

Today they see therapists and adhere to 12-step programs. Clark has been clean for two years, reads meditation books, has a grandchild on the way, and says she has "conscious contact" with God. Prevo, also clean for two years, describes her recovery as regaining her mind. She's been looking for work for about a year. Like Clark, she says she always "practices the truth" on applications requiring information about criminal history. As a result she's been turned away from a litany of jobs: among them, desk clerk, house cleaner, and collections agent. She'd like to become an accountant, but she's now working one day a week as a housekeeper for her aunt and studying for the GED. Clark, who recently had knee-replacement surgery and can no longer stand on her feet to cook for long periods of time, would like to work with the elderly--"to be a small part of joy in their day-to-day life"--or go to school and learn substance-abuse counseling. Sitting around the house all day is dangerous for someone who has to work hard not to use drugs, she says. The way she sees it, "idle time is the devil's workshop."

Joining Clark and Prevo in the van to Springfield are Samir Goswami, the senior policy analyst for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; two Coalition staffers; Walter Boyd, director of the ex-offender opportunity program at Protestants for the Common Good; and Pamela Thomas, who works for a residential program for female ex-offenders.

Prevo and Clark met Goswami last December, after Prevo's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor suggested they attend a meeting his organization, Prostitution Alternatives Roundtable, was holding. PART, a network composed of representatives of various groups and "survivors of the lifestyle of prostitution," has since its inception in August 2001 pressured the state's attorney's office and judges to stop felony upgrades for prostitution and successfully lobbied for a bill allowing Cook County judges to give alternative sentences to mothers who've been convicted of nonviolent felonies.

Goswami felt that Clark, Prevo, and the other survivors at the December meeting had powerful stories to tell to legislators. Since then he's held training sessions on public speaking for the survivors, who he says generally are adept at reading people--a skill he attributes to their having to assess men in 30 seconds and determine whether they're likely to be killed if they go for a ride with them. Goswami says the people on PART's survivors committee also know when to push someone and when to back off--a good instinct to have when lobbying.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 3007, John Cullerton, is a Democrat from Chicago who sees a link between unemployment and crime. He believes that making it easier for felons to get jobs will reduce recidivism. A law passed last year by the Illinois General Assembly allows certain misdemeanor records to be sealed; 3007 would amend that bill to add some nonviolent felonies. It's been tweaked over and over, and many of the proposed additions, such as simple assault, have been picked off by special-interest groups. In its final form, the form Clark and Prevo are lobbying for today, the bill allows for only prostitution and minor drug possession convictions to be sealed, with a judge's approval, but gives police and prosecutors access to the records.

According to Goswami, case law implies that if a felon's criminal record has been sealed, she can check the no box next to the felony-conviction question. In other words, the person couldn't be legally fired for lying on a job application. Senator Cullerton isn't sure it would work that way. "That's a good question," he says. He wonders if it might be a good idea to get the felony question excised from job applications altogether--a prospect that Goswami says is politically impossible in today's tough-on-crime climate.

The deadline to move the bill out of the senate is March 26, just two days away--but in order to even get to the full senate, it must survive today's vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are six Democrats and four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. While the bill needs only six votes to pass, two Democrats are undecided. One of them, William Haine, is a former prosecutor from a conservative district in the southwestern part of the state.

"I think Haine is a lost cause," Boyd tells the group on the ride to Springfield.

Clark says she met with Haine about a month ago in his Springfield office and that he seemed dead set against the bill. "For him to outspokenly say he was a Christian--he didn't have any compassion for what we were trying to do at all. He was like, we committed these crimes, these are the consequences of our crimes, and deal with them."

"It's in his power to change the consequences," Boyd points out.

"You know what?" Clark says. She pauses for a moment, as if giving something a second thought, and then continues, "I wonder if he ever turned a date." Everyone laughs. Clark, though, is serious. She claims to have "dated" many politicians. In fact, she says, the last time she was in Springfield she spotted a former trick. "I had to hide! Because I stole this guy's money. I think he's a senator or a state representative now." Goswami doesn't miss a beat. "If you see a senator out there who's not going to vote for this bill, you might want to pull him aside and say, 'Listen, I know what you're about.'"

As they exit the highway and drive into the city, Goswami spots a large crowd gathered at the Lincoln statue outside the capitol building and says he heard that the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was scheduled to hold a demonstration there today. He honks in support as he drives past. "That was probably the KKK," he jokes.

As he pulls into a parking spot, Clark roars, "Let's go kick some butt!"

Clark hasn't planned what she's going to say. She has a calm, measured way of speaking (though when she gets impassioned her voice slips up into a falsetto). She doesn't belabor her points. She has the ability to recognize when she's said something poignant, and then the good sense to leave it at that. She's always known she could talk people out of their shirts, she says, but she'd never put her skills of persuasion toward anything meaningful until she met Goswami. Speaking to groups, lobbying legislators, working with PART--these things, she says, have given her "a sense of purpose."

She trails behind the group on the way into the capitol building. Since her knee surgery she's been walking with the help of a footed cane. Even so, she has a commanding presence. Not only does she tower above many people, she has the assured demeanor of someone for whom things can only get better.

Inside the capitol, almost everyone is wearing a button. The buttons say "NOW" or "I Vote" or list specific bills. There are people in bright red "Save Vandalia Prison" T-shirts, people with pink triangles on their lapels. There's even a man dressed as Jesus, bloodstains and all, who's here on behalf of undocumented immigrants who can't get driver's licenses.

Everyone's popping in and out of senators' offices, filling out request slips in an effort to pull them out of session, flagging them down in the hallway for a quick word.

Goswami splits up the group to lobby the Republicans and undecided Democrats. He and Clark stop in at Kirk Dillard's office, but the senator, a Republican from Hinsdale, is in a meeting. So they move on to Peter Roskam, a Republican from Wheaton who's not in. His secretary takes Goswami's business card and a flyer on Senate Bill 3007 and assures him the senator will call if he has any questions.

A short while later, Clark and Goswami make their way back to Dillard's office and wait. When Dillard emerges from his meeting, Goswami hands him the flyer and launches into a description of the bill.

"This makes sense to me," Dillard says.

"So I'll take that as a yes?" Goswami asks.

"I would take that as a yes," Dillard says, smiling.

Goswami then introduces Clark. She tells Dillard a little bit about herself. Staring at the flyer in his hand, Dillard says a few words about the importance of getting "these people" back to work. Then he addresses Clark directly. "If you get a job," he says, "that's the best thing you can do."

The Senate Judiciary Committee meets in Room 400, a stately yet colorful room, with blue carpeting and murals of Abe Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and an unknown soldier on the walls. The U.S. and Illinois flags occupy two corners of the room, behind a horseshoe-shaped desk where the senators--ten men in suits--sit in high-back red leather chairs. The windows in the rear of the room are positioned at floor level, producing the odd effect of making the senators appear giant.

Cullerton, who chairs the committee, kicks off the hearing by congratulating committee member Barack Obama on winning the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. The crowd, seated in a small gallery area, explodes in applause.

"This guy now thinks he's a rock star," Cullerton quips.

After voting on a few other bills, Cullerton turns the committee's attention to SB 3007 and invites the four people who've signed up to testify to come forward. Clark introduces herself and says, "I'm here because I've been in recovery for two years now and everywhere I turn I'm running against a brick wall." She talks briefly about her background and how different her life is now, then says, "I'm at the age where prostitution isn't an option for my life anymore." The crowd and the senators break out in laughter. She continues, "It would be really horrendous to see me on your corners, in front of your children and your homes, on a cane, trying to turn a date." More laughter. "So I'm asking for your support for this bill...for countless others and for my grandchildren. How can I possibly raise them with respect and dignity if I'm not allowed to have it for myself?" With that, she stands up and walks back to her seat in the gallery to applause as loud as that for Obama.

The last speaker tells the senators he got caught with marijuana in 1997, and that the seven-year-old misdemeanor is still following him around. Although he has a bachelor's degree in English, is a scholar of medieval literature, and is certified to teach in Illinois, the best job he's been able to get is as a sales clerk at Barnes & Noble. "I want to get into my field and start paying those taxes," he says, pointing out that taxes on a teaching job would likely be higher than what he's paying the state now. "I can expunge my record after a few more months, but there are many people out there who can't."

When he finishes, Cullerton reminds the senators that state's attorneys can object to the sealing of records and that no opponents have signed up to speak.

"This is obviously a tough vote," Obama then says, acknowledging that the senators run the risk of being labeled soft on crime. "I just want to point out that probably nobody has more at stake than I do when we take the vote, but every once in a while we've got to do the right thing." He makes a motion to pass the bill.

The motion is seconded by the vice chair of the committee, Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park. A couple of the Republican senators have questions, but the discussion gets wrapped up in under ten minutes. Finally the clerk takes the roll. All of the Republicans except Dillard vote against the bill, and all the Democrats except Haine, who says, "Present," vote for it.

Prevo jumps up and down in her seat, clapping wildly.

"All right!" says Clark.

"Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus," says Prevo.

The hearing room clears out. People congratulate Clark in the hallway. As the senators file out of the room, Clark shouts, "Thank you guys very much." She spots Obama and walks toward him. "You were very eloquent," he tells her, extending his hand. "You did a great job." As they shake, Obama adds, "And I think you're still pretty cute."

Clark is uncharacteristically speechless. She just smiles.

Two days later the bill makes it through the full senate. Haine votes against it; Dillard's the only Republican to vote for it. Now it's in the house, and if all goes according to PART's plan, it could become law by May.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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