Tap talents of ex-offenders to solidify supply chain
What’s in store for the holiday season? At this rate, perhaps not much if would-be presents are instead adrift on a slow boat from China or stranded in a crate at an American port. Fortunately, part of the solution to these bottlenecks lies within our borders. By tapping into the talents of people with a criminal record, America can grow its workforce at home, adding more longshoremen to our docks, more drivers behind the wheel of our trucks, and more manufacturing workers to domestic assembly lines.
There are several steps policymakers can take so that people who have done their time can punch the clock. They include streamlining federal rules that exclude too many ex-offenders from working around ports and other transportation facilities, making it easier for ex-offenders to obtain driver’s licenses, and adopting laws that expunge or seal criminal records.
First, we must acknowledge that, even if well-intentioned, federal rules excluding people with criminal records from working at ports and airports have veered well beyond the core mission of protecting homeland security. To work at a port, airport, or hazardous waste facility today, an individual must obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). Permanent disqualifying offenses for this credential sensibly encompass not only serious crimes, but those that could result in even more devastating consequences if coupled with access to such a facility. These include terrorism, sedition, and the manufacture of explosives.
But a second category of “interim disqualifying offenses,” which require a seven-year exclusion from employment, is problematic. This list includes transgressions ranging from possessing drugs with intent to distribute to robbery and unlawful possession of a weapon, which could involve an act as simple as carrying an otherwise legal gun with an expired concealed carry license. While applicants denied the federal credential for such offenses can seek an exception, most likely lack the legal acumen and resources to do so.
More importantly, a RAND Institute study found little or no connection between some offenses on the interim exclusion list and a risk to national security. In addition to reexamining the breadth of the list, policymakers could shorten the 7-year lookback, create provisional TWIC cards that include a probationary condition such as working alongside a supervising cardholder without a record, and provide free legal assistance to applicants who wish to appeal the denial of a TWIC card.
Another barrier facing applicants for many jobs that are part of the supply chain is the requirement of a driver’s license, a piece of identification that people with even the most minor criminal records often cannot obtain or renew. Fortunately, since 2017, some 22 states have passed legislation curbing the suspension of driver’s licenses for non-payment of criminal justice fines and fees, covering at a minimum those levies that an individual cannot afford and which are unrelated to dangerous driving.
Congress is now considering a bipartisan bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 28 that provides grants to cover reinstatement fees for driver’s licenses, which can be as high as $275. The Driving for Opportunity Act also abolishes a federal law that threatens states with the loss of federal highway funds if they do not suspend licenses for drug convictions, though most states have wisely enacted legislation to opt out.
Finally, in light of the approximately 70 million Americans who have a conviction or arrest record, Congress should expand record sealing through legislation such as the bipartisan Kenneth Thompson Begin Again Act, which would provide relief after successful completion of probation for certain drug offenses. Most criminal records should be more like bottles of aspirin with an expiration date than scarlet letters that last forever. This approach is consistent with research showing that those with old criminal records who have been living crime-free in the community for many years are increasingly unlikely to re-offend as time passes. Though data varies by factors such as age and offense history, a study co-authored by noted criminologist Alfred Blumstein found that, on average, if 3.8 years had passed since a burglary committed at the age of 18, the individual was no more likely to commit another offense than those without a criminal record.
Some studies also suggest that record sealing can reduce recidivism by providing motivation for individuals to desist from crime. Imagine being told when sentenced to probation or released from prison that staying on the right side of the law for a specified period will result in a fresh start with at least no publicly available evidence of your costly mistake. States from Pennsylvania to Utah have recently moved in this direction, making the record sealing process automatic for low-level offenses by adopting “Clean Slate” laws. The impetus for automation follows research showing that less than 7 percent of people who were eligible for sealing pursued it, mostly because they were unaware of the opportunity or lacked funds to bring a lawsuit seeking relief.
As consumer goods and the labor to transport them become ever scarcer amid supply chain woes, we should redouble efforts to harness the untapped potential of people who have overcome dark moments in their past. Through changes to the TWIC program, driver’s license suspensions, and record sealing, we can do more than supply ourselves with goods; we can supply our fellow citizens with second chances.
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