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Lawmakers Urged to Protect Businesses That Hire Ex-Prisoners

Amid a broader legislative push to help former prisoners re-enter society, state lawmakers on Monday were encouraged to limit the legal liability of businesses that hire ex-prisoners.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Brandon Biko Reese, who will soon be released after serving a five-year sentence, is enthusiastically welcomed to the front of the room to give a farewell speech. In an effort to "de-gangsterize" inmates, administrators encourage them to dance and cheer for their peers whenever possible.

Amid a broader legislative effort to help prisoners re-enter society after their sentences, lawmakers on Monday were urged to limit the legal liability of businesses that hire ex-prisoners.

House Bill 1188, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would bar anyone who hires a former prisoner from being sued for “negligently hiring or failing to adequately supervise” the employee should he or she commit a crime while on the job.

"This allows these people to get back into the mainstream so they can become productive citizens," Thompson said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

While advocates for the bill say protections for employers will help former prisoners find jobs as they reintegrate into society, some took issue with the bill's exceptions, which exclude liability protection for companies that hire former sex offenders.

Analysts said many companies are reluctant to hire former offenders because of worries about lawsuits should the employee commit another crime while working. “There are a lot of companies that understand the redemption of the individual, but they don’t want to get sued,” said Jorge Renaud, a former inmate who now analyzes policy for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Sam Caldwell, a former inmate, said he has struggled to find work because of his 10-year sentence for sexual assault. He told lawmakers that companies considered hiring him but were worried he might face accusations. “It’s not the risk that I do something — it’s the risk that someone says I do something," he said.

The bill, which has the support of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, includes an exception for employees whose original crimes are related to their current employment. If someone commits fraud, serves a prison sentence and is then hired to disburse funds, for instance, the employer can still be sued if the employee commits fraud again.

There are also exceptions for violent offenses and sexual crimes, which has stirred some opposition.

Mary Sue Molnar, the director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, said lawmakers often exclude sex offenders from bills related to prisoner re-entry because of a widespread notion that such offenders cannot be rehabilitated. “That’s the hardest myth to break,” she said. “It may look better" to exclude these offenders, she said, but “it doesn’t make communities safer.”

“Everyone should have a chance at re-entry,” she added.

Caldwell said he supports the bill even though it would not apply to him. "We want to get it passed," he said, adding that he would hope to expand the liability protection to include sex offenders in the future.

The bill comes amid a push to address issues related to helping prisoners re-enter society and find jobs after their release. This year, the Texas Association of Business, the state's largest business group, has for the first time gotten involved in criminal justice policy based on the idea that ex-offenders who successfully find jobs and do not return to prison contribute to a healthier business climate. A program at the Cleveland Unit in East Texas that trains prisoners to start their own businesses after release is expanding and recently partnered with Baylor University to offer business certificates.

“Studies have shown that vocational education reduce recidivism more than anything else you can do,” said Marc Levin, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “You get the most benefit if there's a connection to jobs available in the workforce.”

On the national level, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year issued guidelines to prohibit employers from denying people jobs based solely on their criminal records, though employers can still run background checks. The Michigan Legislature is now considering a bill that would ban employers from asking on job applications about prior convictions.

Thompson has also filed House Bills 799 and 797, which would require the Windham School District — which runs classes within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — to provide more information for prisoners on licensing restrictions they will face when they leave prison.

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Courts Criminal justice Senfronia Thompson