Bills to help former prisoners re-enter workforce ‘dead’

Politics

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Two criminal justice bills aimed at helping former prisoners re-enter the workforce have stalled in the Mississippi Legislature after lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement.

Democratic Sen. John Horhn of Jackson said that Ban The Box Act and Fresh Start Act are “dead for all intents and purposes.” Horhn said negotiators could not come to a consensus.

“We ran into difficulties on the House side, they didn’t give us much of a reason,” Horhn said Tuesday.

The Ban the Box Act, Senate Bill 2112, would prohibit a public or private employer from asking an applicant to disclose his or her criminal record before that person has been selected for an interview. The bill would not apply if there is no interview process required to submit an application for a job.

The Fresh Start Act, Senate Bill 2759, would broaden legislation enacted last year to remove restrictions for people with criminal records applying for licenses in nine occupations, including work in tattoo and body piercing, pediatric extended care centers and brain injury rehabilitation facilities. The bill proposed this session would allow people with criminal convictions to apply for almost any professional license, unless their conviction is related to the field they are trying to work in.

The senator said he was disappointed not to see the bills advance.

“We thought this was a good pairing to go along with the other criminal justice reform bills that we were pushing this year, and it’s unfortunate that the House took the position it took,” Horhn said.

The Mississippi Legislature on Tuesday passed the final version of a measure, Senate Bill 2123, that will give thousands of inmates in the Mississippi Department of Corrections a chance at parole. Another bill still being considered would reduce long prison sentences given to habitual offenders whose past crimes were either nonviolent or committed many years earlier.

James Robertson of Empower Mississippi, an organization that has pushed for the Fresh Start Act legislation, said more needs to be done to remove barriers to Mississippians reentering the workforce. A criminal conviction should not automatically disqualify someone from obtaining a license to work, he said.

“This bill represented an important step to remove barriers to work for people who are unemployed or underemployed,” Robertson said. “Once an individual has paid their debt to society and re-entered our community, the state should not erect unneeded barriers that make it harder for them to earn a living.”

Like Horhn, Robertson said he is also disappointed to hear legislators couldn’t come to an agreement on the bill. He said legislation has been implemented successfully in conservative states like Tennessee and Indiana. However, Robertson said the Mississippi Legislature did make some positive changes this session by expanding the authority of the occupational licensing review committee, which supervises state occupational licensing boards and ensures their compliance with state policy.

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