Business Group Helps Criminal Justice Bills Pass

This session, several bills that attempt to make it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs once they are out of prison are headed to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

As they made their way through House and Senate committees, they had the usual input from groups that focus on criminal justice reform. But they also got special attention from the Texas Association of Business, which specifically put criminal justice issues on its legislative agenda for the first time.

Many of the bills supported by the business association passed, making it easier for some former prisoners to gain work skills and find jobs. 

In numerous bills, the association worked to address the concerns of businesses that are willing to hire former prisoners haven’t done so in the past.

The statewide registry of sex offenders includes information about employers, which can cause businesses to be hesitant about hiring people who have served time for a sex offense. The business association helped promote Senate Bill 369, by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which would allow such employer information to only be available to law enforcement. Supporters of the bill, including the business association, said that often the crime that was committed had little to do with the job an ex-offender wanted to get — sex offenders still cannot work with children — and that businesses would be more likely to give them a second chance under this legislation.

 

The Texas Association of Broadcasters criticized the bill, saying at committee hearings that it would make it difficult to inform the public about dangerous people in its midst. But the bill passed both the House and Senate and is on its way to the governor.

Another bill sent to the governor was carried by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. House Bill 1188 would limit the liability of businesses that hire ex-offenders. It would no longer be possible to sue a business based solely on the fact that it hired someone who had committed a crime in the past.

Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in a news release that the bill would be good for business. "Many business leaders have identified the threat of being sued for negligent hiring as one of the main reasons they cannot hire and retain otherwise qualified and productive rehabilitated ex-offenders," he said.

The business association has stepped up its involvement on criminal justice affairs because ex-offenders who get jobs are less likely to commit new crimes, explained the group's governmental affairs manager, Kandice Sanaie, saving the state money on prisons and increasing the number of potential employees and consumers for Texas businesses.

"We want to make people more employable," Sanaie said. "This is about saving tax dollars and putting people back to work."

Ana Yáñez-Correa, who directs the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, worked with the business association on numerous bills. "The business community has a lot to say about how policymakers spend taxpayer dollars because they are collectively the number one contributor to the tax base," she said. "We pay a lot of money for the criminal justice system."

The association supported House Bill 1790, by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, which would have allowed judges to turn certain state jail felonies into misdemeanors if the offender successfully completed a period of community supervision.  This would make it easier for these ex-offenders to find a job, supporters of the bill said, thus making them less likely to reoffend.

Several district attorneys came out against the bill, arguing that it would give judges too much power to override a prosecutor's initial decisions about what offense to charge and another judge's decision about punishment. But the bill cleared the Senate and was headed to the governor's desk Wednesday evening.

 

Senate Bill 977, by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would make it easier for ex-offenders who completed community supervision, a form of parole, to ask courts for an "order of nondisclosure," allowing them to keep their criminal record confidential from most private employers and some public agencies. The Texas Association of Broadcasters also opposed this bill, and though it failed to pass, the measure was added as an amendment to SB107, which is on its way to the governor's desk.

Other bills the association supported did not fare as well, like Senate Bill 991, also by West, would have expanded the eligibility for inmates who are sick or old and are deemed to pose no public threat to be released into a "medically recommended intensive supervision." It passed the Senate but never made it to the House calendar.

This measure, Sanaie said, was simply a matter of saving the state money, and it faced more opposition. Parole board chairwoman Rissie Owens had warned lawmakers in the past about the "miraculous recovery" of terminally ill inmates who had been paroled but recovered and committed new crimes.

The business association also worked with Thompson on House Bills 797798 and 799, which would ease licensing restrictions for some offenders, expand the Windham School District — which runs classes within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — and require the agency to provide more information for prisoners on licensing restrictions they will face when they leave prison. All three measures are headed to the governor’s desk.

“Studies have shown that vocational education reduces recidivism more than anything else you can do,” Levin said when those bills came up in committee hearings. “You get the most benefit if there's a connection to jobs available in the workforce.”

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