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Tennessee legislature passes Fresh Start Act to assist convicts in finding employment

Zach Vance • Apr 7, 2018 at 12:32 AM

It’s not easy for someone with a criminal past to find employment, especially if the job they’re applying for is in one of the 110 occupations requiring a license in Tennessee.

Almost all of Tennessee’s occupational licensing boards can deny a license to anyone with a criminal record, including lower-level forms of crime classified as misdemeanors, but legislation sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison will change that.

Passed by the House and Senate, the Fresh Start Act prevents occupational and professional licensing boards from denying an occupational license due to someone’s criminal record, unless the criminal offense is a violent felony or relates directly to an offender’s ability to perform the job.

Faison’s bill garnered 52 cosponsors in the House, ranging from the most liberal Democrats to the most conservative Republicans. Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, who’s also a gubernatorial candidate, were among those cosponsors.

The bipartisan Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice, comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Tennessee Association of Goodwill, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee County Services Association, was also a strong advocate for the bill.

”This is actually a big deal and my colleagues don't realize how big of a deal it is, but there are hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who are stuck right now, just completely stuck,” Faison said.

“Republicans, we like to yell at people, tell them to get off food stamps, get off welfare and pull themselves up by their boot straps. Unfortunately in Tennessee, if you have a felony record, you can’t get a job anywhere. Nobody will hire you for one, and for two, you can’t get a license to do a job ... If you had a criminal record prior to this bill passing, you couldn’t get it.”

Tennessee’s recidivism rates have decreased from 50 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2016, and Faison believes this legislation will further chip away at the rate of felony inmates who are re-incarcerated within three years of being released from prison.

“We as a society have tied people down so they can't make it. We're taking those straps off, and I believe this is going to break generational poverty,” Faison said.

Harwell said she believes the bill will save taxpayer money on the cost of incarceration, while enabling more citizens to capitalize on job opportunities in Tennessee.

Among the 110 different occupations that require licensure, most are blue-collar type jobs, such as HVAC installation, plumbing, pest control and other manual labor or industrial-related work.

“This Fresh Start Act strikes an appropriate balance between protecting consumer safety, but also preserving the right of an individual to earn a living and to give those individuals second chances,” ACLU Director Hedy Weinberg, who serves on the Coalition, said.

Approximately 10 million U.S. citizens — including 5,000 in Tennessee — return to their communities each year following incarceration and face barriers to securing employment, according to the Council of State Governments.

The Council estimates occupational restrictions, like licenses, can result in 2.85 million fewer people employed nationally. The National Reentry Resource Center estimates the economy loses $78 billion to $87 billion annually in gross domestic product when people with criminal records are unemployed or underemployed.

The Fresh Start Act does not apply to the boards of judicial conduct, law examiners and police officers, and occupational licensing boards can still deny applicants if they were charged with a sex crime or a Class A, B or C felony.

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