This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on March 2, 2016.
Some 68 million Americans — roughly one in five — have some sort of a criminal record and as a result are often excluded from certain areas of the workforce. However, there are compelling economic and public safety reasons to ensure that insurmountable government roadblocks do not hinder second chances for ex-offenders trying to earn their keep.
We know the best alternative to a life of crime or a life behind bars is a life making an honest living. Policymakers, whether on the Austin City Council or in the Legislature, must ensure we are a second-chance society where people can punch the clock after doing their time, because failing to do so not only has a negative effect on public safety but on the overall economy as well
When technology-driven changes provide new opportunities for people looking to find work and re-enter society, lawmakers shouldn’t introduce barriers that put them out of reach. On-demand ridesharing app Uber recently announced that it would no longer disqualify people looking to drive with the company in California for having certain low-level, nonviolent crimes on their record. This means that someone who shoplifted a decade ago and has lived crime-free ever since can now give you a lift and earn a living.
When those with a criminal record cannot support themselves or their families, they often fall back into old patterns of crime, whereas access to work can help get people back on their feet and has been shown to reduce recidivism. Studies have also shown that the more time someone spends out of prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. But the unfortunate reality is that 60-75 percent of people leaving prison today are unable to find work a year later. This is largely because most employers require background checks that make it hard for anyone with a criminal record to get work.
On-demand services like Uber, Lyft, Handy and Instacart are poster children for a growing type of flexible work. It’s easy to get started and there are no set schedules. This can be a vital bridge to a better life for people looking to get back on their feet. They can earn an income while simultaneously going to school, taking care of their kids or interviewing for full-time work.
Yet despite the promise of innovation, several cities in Texas are trying to impose fingerprinting requirements for ride-hailing services — a process that would disproportionately burden people with low-level, nonviolent offenses who are looking for a way to support themselves.
Politicians must resist calls from incumbent interests to impose regulations on new competitors that require ineffective and duplicative screening techniques that were developed decades ago. They would be wise to consider how these seemingly innocent regulations come at a great cost to citizens, taxpayers, and consumers — blocking even those with minor mistakes from seeking opportunities in the on-demand economy.
For example, the proposed Austin ordinance to fingerprint on-demand drivers is a solution in search of a problem, given that Uber already excludes those with violent, sexual, or driving-related offenses. Austinites are exponentially more likely to be injured by a reckless driver of a personal vehicle than by an assaultive Uber driver, which indicates this entire issue is a distraction from the serious challenge of making our roads safer.
It is no secret that, while change is in the air, many employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, especially those without a recent work history. Accordingly, we must not allow red tape to close off the pathway to self-reliance that the on-demand economy can provide. Government needs to get out of the way, not put up roadblocks to second chances for Texans driven to turn their lives around.
Our state officials are stepping up in response to the clear need to ensure that ex-offenders have an effective, legitimate way to move forward with their lives after their time is served. Last year, Texas lawmakers enacted Senate Bill 1902, which allows — for the first time — individuals with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions to have their records sealed after a period of living crime-free. Another recent Texas law enables ex-offenders to obtain occupational licenses provided their offense was not among the serious violent offenses and did not directly relate to their occupation. Enacting sensible criminal justice reform has allowed Texas to close three prisons, reduce recidivism rates by 25 percent, save nearly $3 billion in prison costs, and get to our lowest rate of crime since 1968.