A Senate idea to get behind: new bill would help ex-prisoners start a business

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee on small business and entrepreneurship, last month introduced the New Start Act. The legislation is designed to enable the Small Business Administration to award grants, counseling, training and other services to convicted criminals returning back to society after time served, all with the aim towards helping them start businesses.

Cardin is not new to the issue of prison reform. He was a co-sponsor of another bill, enacted at the end of 2018, which reduced sentences for certain low-level non-violent offenders and provided programs to help people who have been in prison rejoin their communities. The New Start bill will take this one step further.

“This bill will use the power of entrepreneurship to help returning citizens rebuild their lives and re-enter their communities by giving them the training and capital they need to start businesses,” Cardin said in a statement. “It will give returning citizens one more tool in their re-entry toolkit.”

The New Start Act would require released prisoners who launch startups and organizations who are seeking grants to show that they have ties to other businesses and their communities. It would also require they partner with lenders in the SBA’s Microloan Program for help starting and building their businesses.

According to data provided by Cardin, more than 600,000 people every year are released from prison and an estimated 64.6 million Americans – 25% of the adult-age population – have had a criminal record.

Unfortunately, society has not been kind to those prisoners who are trying to return after serving their sentences. Sixty percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed after their release. Many employers I know are reluctant to introduce someone with a prison record into their offices. The federal government doesn’t give out contracts, in some cases, to companies who employ certain people with criminal records. Many businesses are hesitant to do business with others that have had a criminal past.

“As we work to challenge and end stigma and barriers to employment, small-business ownership is a vital pathway for thousands of people with records, who have the creativity and courage, to start a business,” says DeAnna Hoskins, the chief of JustLeadershipUSA, a prisoner-advocacy organization. “The New Start Act increases the number of people who will be able to take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities.”

This is a time when employers are desperate for good people to hire and outsource work to good contractors. The bill also follows similar programs – like one in Texas that has graduated more than 2,300 returning citizens and help them secure employment and start businesses – that have shown successful results.

The big questions for existing small business owners is: would you do business with, and would you hire an employee who has a prison record? The answer, given the tight job market and increasing customer demand, is that we may not have a choice. And legislation like New Start may just push us into doing what we all know is the right thing to do anyway.

The act remains under review by the Senate’s small business committee.

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