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Congress should include second chances in coronavirus relief bill

Congress should include second chances in coronavirus relief bill
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The rising death toll for those who are in corrections environments pains us, but it does not surprise us. Social distancing is next to impossible for those who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, and youth detention centers across the nation. With large numbers of people living in close quarters, these correctional facilities are breeding grounds for the coronavirus.

Many men and women held in correctional facilities all across the country are ill, elderly, or otherwise have vulnerable immune systems. Not only are they at greater risk, they may be more likely to pass on infections to other incarcerated people, corrections officers, law enforcement, and medical staff. All of them may in turn spread the coronavirus to their families and communities and become unable to work. This makes us all less safe.

While social distancing is essentially impossible for those behind bars, it is ironically all too familiar for the formerly incarcerated. No matter how hard they try, many individuals with a criminal background find they are always held at a distance. As a result, both those behind bars and those returning home face increased challenges during this pandemic. This growing crisis merits the urgent attention of our lawmakers and officials at every level.

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The estimated 70 million adults with a criminal record are subject to over 44,000 legal restrictions on where they can live, what kind of work they can do, and more. On top of ordinary entry challenges, people coming home from prison have to now navigate the hazards of the coronavirus. Their prospects of gaining access to employment, housing, and other things necessary for successful reintegration are bleaker than usual.

Many returning citizens are already sidelined. More than 13,000 collateral consequences related to occupational licensing currently constrain entry of former prisoners into the labor market in our country. Aspiring barbers, manicurists, cosmetologists, as well as residential contractors for heating, painting, and insulation must obtain government permissions to work in at least 30 states. In some cases, formerly incarcerated individuals face total bans from accessing particular licenses, even if their offenses had nothing to do with the profession. These restrictions backfire in the best economy but, especially now, we need every hand on deck to rebuild our country.

That is why we are so alarmed by the recent interim rule for the Paycheck Protection Program. It provides loans meant to help small businesses pay their employees during the coronavirus crisis. The rule denies applicants who have had a felony within the last five years. Moreover, the application includes several questions that make it unclear as to whether other types of criminal records or previous involvement with the justice system might prohibit access to federal loans. The rule excludes too many people who are invaluable job creators for their communities across the country. We urge Congress to lift this unjust restriction in the next stimulus package.

We will not let up because we believe in second chances. We believe that people with criminal records have the dignity and capacity to contribute  to society. We have seen unprecedented bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms, such as federal legislation like the First Step Act and Fair Chance Act. Over 40 states passed a record number of laws that remove collateral consequences for returning citizens last year. President Trump again declared April to be Second Chance Month, a national movement celebrated to unlock brighter futures for people with criminal records.

We have made incredible strides toward expanding second chances while enhancing public safety. Let us keep pushing forward. Let us not allow the chaos of the pandemic to derail significant bipartisan policy gains. Let us continue to support those millions of Americans who have had the great opportunity to turn their lives around with our words, deeds, and votes.

Holly Harris is the executive director of the Justice Action Network. Heather Rice Minus is vice president of government affairs at the Prison Fellowship.