S.C. jobs bill seeks second chance for former prisoners

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Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 6:08 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Right now, more than 100,000 jobs are open across South Carolina – including many in state government.

Supporters of a new bill say it could help fill a lot of those government jobs while giving a second chance to people who have served time in prison.

“It was kind of discouraging to walk out of prison and ready to go to work and start your life over, and people are telling you you are not good enough to work for them. It was not that you couldn’t do the job but because you had a felony conviction,” said Lester Young, who served 22 years in prison.

Charleston’s Keith Smalls says he only got a job after completing his sentence – because of tragedy.

“Losing a son to gun violence a year after my release — my 17-year-old son was then murdered by a 15-year-old — created circumstances for me that opened doors that were shut based on my lived experienced and being a returning citizen,” he said.

They testified at the State House this week – in support of legislation aimed to help other returning citizens once they’ve served their time.

“Now I’m a homeowner. At 50 years old, bought my first house because a company like Tyson Foods gave me an opportunity,” Young said.

The Workforce Opportunity Act would prohibit the state and its agencies from asking about a person’s criminal history or record when they’re applying for a job – until they’ve gotten an interview or a conditional offer – a practice commonly known as “banning the box.”

It would also bar the state from disqualifying someone from a government job based solely on their criminal record – unless the crime directly relates to the job for which they’re applying.

The Department of Corrections would be exempt from this bill.

The bill came before a Senate subcommittee this week – which didn’t take a vote on advancing it.

The chair of that subcommittee says while he supports the general idea of this bill, he has some concerns about the liability aspects for state agencies that would be following this law.

So he says they want to work out those details – before voting on whether to advance the bill.

South Carolina currently boasts the nation’s lowest recidivism rate.

Supporters say enacting this measure would strengthen those efforts.

“Branding them with a scarlet letter of a criminal record after they have already completed their sentence is not only unjust; it effectively makes reincarceration more likely,” said Shirene Hansotia, Root & Rebound S.C. site director.

They also say it could help fill open jobs – as state agencies, like so many other employers in South Carolina, face challenges hiring right now.

“You’ve got a pool of men and women who are out there and need a job. And I say, how do you solve that problem?” Young said. “It’s start hiring those with felony convictions.”