For years, criminal justice reform advocates cajoled Bill Hammond, the executive director of the Texas Association of Business, to get on board with their efforts to reduce the prison population and keep ex-offenders from re-offending.
TAB, the state’s largest business lobby and a powerhouse at the state Capitol, would support a bill or two, like a 2011 measure that would have eliminated the employment address listing for people on the sex offender registry. But this legislative session is the first time that the business lobby specifically put criminal justice issues on its legislative agenda.
TAB says it will support "criminal justice reforms from previous legislative sessions and enhance ongoing efforts to improve public safety, reduce the rate of recidivism, and decrease prison costs. Such reforms include, but are not limited to, finding cost-effective alternatives to incarceration through the implementation of enhanced probation programs.”
“This time around, we will be much more detailed and involved,” Hammond said, adding that the business community wants to find ways to decrease the prison population to both save taxpayer money and to increase the number of workers available to fill the state’s growing workforce needs.
Hammond said a TAB board member, Penny Rayfield, convinced the association that businesses should become involved in criminal justice reform efforts. Rayfield is president of OnShore Resources, a manufacturing company that has operations on prison property and trains and hires inmates who choose to participate in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program.
“People coming out of prison need jobs. Businesses need qualified employees. And by supporting policies that will help us accomplish those goals, it’s good business and it’s good use of taxpayer dollars,” Rayfield said.
Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice, said TAB recognized that money spent on locking up nonviolent offenders who could benefit from probation or drug treatment, could better be spent on other priorities like education, transportation or potential tax relief. And the more people who aren’t in prison who can become productive workers, the better chance businesses will have to find qualified employees.
“We have people that currently are a burden to the state that could be productive for businesses and for their families,” Levin said.
TAB hasn’t committed its support to any specific bills, but Hammond said the organization would review individual measures. Businesses, he said, are particularly interested in reducing barriers to employment for former inmates, such as restrictions on commercial driving licenses and on types of occupational licenses. They would also like to see laws that prevent businesses from potential legal liability for hiring ex-offenders.
“We’re inclined to see appropriate ways where we can expand the pool of those who can work,” Hammond said.
The association is also looking at reforms to the juvenile justice system that helped dramatically reduce the population of youths in state lockups in recent years. A key to that success was a measure that gave counties more money from the state if they kept more of the young offenders at the local level for treatment and rehabilitation, or detention if needed, rather than sending them to state-run youth prisons.
“Probation is a whole hell of a lot cheaper than incarceration,” Hammond said.
Reform advocates said they are hopeful that the assistance from the business community will bring more conservative legislators’ attention to an issue that has long been dominated by Democrats.
“There’s a wide range of policy makers who really do believe in strengthening business and saving tax dollars,” said Ana Yañez Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “Criminal justice reform proposals can really create the outcomes that they campaign on.”