The State of Illinois has long played tough when it
comes to keeping drug offenders unemployed.
The state’s drug-free workplace statute extends
to contractors, who must certify that they’ve taken exhaustive
measures to put zero tolerance into practice. It took years before
progressive lawmakers were able to pass a measure that allows low-level
drug offenders to get their court records sealed so that they can pass
background checks and get jobs. “We started off way back in 1997 or
so,” recalls Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago).
The bill that became law in June is strict—and
it’s still theoretical. The state hasn’t come up with enough
money to implement the statute, and when the money comes, it’s far
from a free ride for druggies. For one thing, the law applies only to drug
offenders convicted of simple possession—traffickers need not apply.
Offenders must also wait four years after being released from jail or
completing probation before they can get their records sealed. Offenders
must pass drug tests before convictions are hidden from prospective
employers. And they get just one chance. A second drug conviction will
haunt them forever.
Howard says constituents who came to her for help
weren’t able to get jobs at McDonald’s, even with a single
possession conviction, no matter how old. It makes no sense to penalize a
person forever for a single mistake, she explains. To do so only
perpetuates the cycle of poverty, fuels chronic unemployment, and
encourages criminal behavior, she says.
At least one drug offender in Illinois hasn’t
had to wait for legislative action to get a job.
Joseph Zappa, 45, was working a clerical job at the
secretary of state’s office in 1994 when he got busted for
trafficking cocaine in a state building. Zappa was indicted after a
co-worker at a driver’s testing facility in Springfield opened a
package addressed to him and found cocaine inside. Alleging that Zappa had
cocaine mailed to him at work at least four times, prosecutors filed 14
felony drug charges, including conspiracy, narcotics trafficking, and
multiple counts of drug delivery.
Zappa eventually pleaded guilty to criminal drug
conspiracy and got a six-month sentence, plus three years of probation. But
he didn’t stay out of trouble. In 1998, just one month before he was
due to complete probation, Zappa was pulled over by Springfield police and
surrendered a crack pipe and a rock of cocaine when officers asked to
search him, according to police reports. It was late at night in an area
known for drug dealing, police say. Zappa beat the rap after his lawyer
convinced a judge that the officer who pulled him over for running a stop
sign could not have been in a position to see the alleged traffic
Zappa was in courthouses a lot during the 1990s. His
then-wife obtained an order of protection against him in 1997, saying he
tore a phone off the wall when she tried calling 911 during an argument,
and he removed the knob from a bathroom door when she locked herself
inside. At the time, he was an unemployed construction laborer. He was a
defendant in several lawsuits filed in small-claims court during the 1990s.
A loan company sued him for $6,300 in unpaid debt in 1998. Zappa filed for
bankruptcy the following year. Three months later, his mobile home was
By all appearances, Zappa was headed nowhere fast.
Then, a curious thing happened. The Illinois Environmental Protection
Agency in 1999 hired him as an inspector in its air pollution division,
where he specializes in finding violations of asbestos-safety regulations.
It’s a job that could land him in court again as a state witness when
the agency goes after pollution scofflaws. “In a regulatory agency,
there’s always that potential,” acknowledges Maggie Carson,
IEPA spokeswoman. Defense attorneys could presumably undermine
Zappa’s credibility by bringing up his criminal past, although Carson
says that hasn’t been a problem and that Zappa, who earns $32,980 a
year, has proven an exemplary employee. Indeed, he once received a
certificate of appreciation from the criminal investigation division of the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for his work on an asbestos case in
which someone attempted to defaud a group of nuns.
“I’ve always personally found him to be
personally accommodating and good to work with,” Carson says.
“From my observation, he does a good job. This is also a comment from
his supervisor.” Zappa himself declined an interview request.
Zappa’s good deeds aside, Rep. Howard is
mystified—this wasn’t the type of criminal she had in mind when
she urged her colleagues in the legislature to give nickel-and-dime drug
offenders a break. “I’m sort of confused as to why there was no
background check,” she says. Told that Zappa is the brother of Leo
Zappa, Jr., a longtime Sangamon County circuit judge, Howard sighed.
“That tells you all you need to know,” she says. “Do I
have to say anything else?”
Joseph Zappa declined comment. Leo Zappa says
he’s “very insulted” that anyone would think he helped
his brother get a job. Rather, the judge suggests, his brother may have
used old contacts in the secretary of state’s office. “My
brother and I have had a very, very, very cold relationship,” Leo
Zappa says. “I had nothing to do with his getting that
Two years ago, Zappa moved to have his record
expunged so that no one, not even law enforcement officers, would know
about his criminal past. A judge in DuPage County, where Zappa pleaded
guilty to the felony conspiracy charge, refused his request.