Washington Examiner: Prisoners can't find work when they get out — this could easily change that

By Jared Meyer

While PEP has demonstrated an impressive record of helping people find work and avoid crime, its success, and the success of those leaving prison, is hindered by the state of Texas.

More than one-third of the 600,000-plus people released from incarceration each year will return to prison within three years. While there are many factors behind this failure, the largest is a lack of work for ex-offenders. People leaving prison are faced with thousands of harsh, overly broad occupational licensing restrictions that keep them out of work.

Since 2004, the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program has found a way to promote work over crime by encouraging entrepreneurship, both while inmates are incarcerated and while they are readjusting to society. The participants take classes and work with outside mentors to develop business plans for industries across the board, from technology platforms to automobile repair shops.

The results speak for themselves: 100 percent of PEP graduates have found work three months after release. These graduates have a recidivism rate of only 7 percent, saving taxpayers $4.3 million.

A new video with Jeff Offutt, a PEP graduate and the owner of Houston-based Jita Printing, shows the power of work in helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives. After Offutt was released from prison, he took what he learned through PEP and started his business. Nine years later, Jita Printing is taking in $1.3 million in annual sales.

While PEP has demonstrated an impressive record of helping people find work and avoid crime, its success, and the success of those leaving prison, is hindered by the state of Texas.

Currently, Texas licensing boards can deny licenses to applicants with criminal convictions related to an occupation, regardless of how long ago the crimes were committed, and they can consider unrelated convictions for up to five years from the conviction date. As Offutt said, “If [lawmakers] would lighten the regulations to make it a bit easier little for people who are being released from prisons to get jobs, then I think you will see a change.”

Texas has more than 130 restrictions on individuals with felonies working in licensed occupations, the most in the nation. Any felony conviction, or actions that show a lack of “good moral character,” can be grounds for denying a dental hygienist license. Electrical or HVAC apprentices cannot have a criminal record, meaning anyone who was caught texting while driving is banned from entering apprenticeship programs.

These restrictions have had tragic effects on people like Texas resident Krystal Turner. After working at an auto garage for several years, Turner applied for a state vehicle inspector’s certificate, a job that would have brought her higher pay and more opportunity. By all counts, Turner deserved to advance in her career: She was a straight-A student at a local community college and served in a campus ministry.

But the state Department of Public Safety denied her application because she was caught spending a night in an abandoned house five years before when she had been homeless. A judge recommended that she be granted a license after Turner fought back in court, and DPS finally allowed her to work as a vehicle inspector — but Texas law would have allowed the department to refuse her application.

To fix this problem, Texas could adopt two reforms that would make it easier for those with records to find jobs while still protecting public safety. These reforms have passed in nearly a dozen other states this year and are proven ways to promote work over crime and dependency.

The first, passed by Massachusetts and Wisconsin this year, would require licensing boards to list the directly-related criminal convictions that could lead to a denied license. Not only would this create more transparency and certainty for applicants, it would end automatic, overly broad bans on work for those with criminal records.

The second would limit the time that nonviolent, nonsexual offenses can lead to a denied occupational license to five years. Since research has found that nonviolent offenders who remain crime-free for three to four years are no more likely to commit a crime than the average person, this standard (passed by Indiana and Kansas this year) would protect public safety and peoples’ ability to work at the same time.

PEP’s success is proof that a criminal record does not make someone a danger to the public. Work is key to reducing recidivism, combating dependency, and promoting public safety. For nonprofit organizations like PEP to see even greater success, they need help from states that are currently putting working in licensed occupations out of reach for those with criminal records.

Read this article in the Washington Examiner.

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

Jonathan Haggerty