House OKs Bills To Help Ex-Prisoners Start Businesses

By Andrew Kragie | January 12, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two bipartisan bills that would offer entrepreneurship training and mentorship to people leaving federal prisons with the goal of reducing recidivism by helping former inmates gain employment and overcome the stigma of a criminal record.

The pair of “Prison to Proprietorship” measures, which easily won approval Wednesday and Thursday, would direct the Small Business Administration’s nonprofit partners to provide training for current prisoners and mentorship for former prisoners. The bills do not authorize new funding but would allow the government to reimburse nonprofit partners for the classes and courses they provide, with priority for people set to leave prison within 18 months.

The House Small Business Committee crafted the legislation after hearing from experts about a post-incarceration catch-22: People who can’t find steady employment are more likely to commit new crimes and return to prison, yet a criminal record often makes it hard to get a job.

Chairwoman Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., sponsored one of the bills and predicted “a great return investment.”

“Entrepreneurship is a great way to help individuals overcome barriers to re-entering the workforce,” she said Wednesday on the House floor. “And for the formerly incarcerated, it can be the difference between reintegrating into society or returning to prison.”

Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, the panel’s top Republican, co-sponsored Velazquez’s bill and touted the possibility of lowering recidivism rates. He also said nearly half of federal inmates currently lack access to vocational training that could prepare them for post-prison employment.

The training programs would include in-person workshops at federal prisons offered by SBA partners including small business development centers and women’s business centers. Topics would include developing a business plan, making a resume and identifying sources of capital. The post-release mentors would come from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a nonprofit with more than 10,000 volunteers who give advice based on their business experience.

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who leads the chamber’s Democratic caucus, sponsored the mentorship bill along with Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.

“We have a mass incarceration epidemic,” Jeffries said on the House floor Wednesday. The pair of bills “is designed to make sure that the American dream is accessible to formerly incarcerated individuals, their families and their communities. It is consistent with a core value in America — that hard work should be rewarded, and that opportunity should be available to everyone.”

Jeffries’ bill passed the House on Wednesday on a voice vote, meaning that no representative requested a record of individual “yeas” and “nays.” Velazquez’s bill passed late Thursday on a 370-41 vote with about a fifth of all Republicans opposed.

Velazquez, a Small Business Committee member for nearly three decades, took pride in the measures.

“Of the many pieces of legislation that we have marked up in our committee and the many hearings that we have held in our committee, this has been one of the most rewarding, moving experiences,” she said Wednesday.

Committee spokespeople did not immediately respond to a Law360 question on Friday about the prospects of Senate passage, but the broad bipartisan support suggests the bills could make it through the GOP-led upper chamber.

The legislation developed after a hearing in October that featured people who started their own businesses after leaving prison, as well as a bank robber turned Georgetown law professor.

Former stockbroker Gary Wozniak told representatives how drug addiction led him to steal money from his clients in the 1980s.

After three years behind bars, he looked for a job. He got an interview with Enterprise Rent-a-Car but got turned down for an entry-level clerk position because of his felony conviction. He gave up on the job hunt and cobbled together money from relatives and former clients to open a pizza-chain franchise.

Thirty years later, Wozniak runs RecoveryPark, a Detroit nonprofit that employs people out of prison on small farms growing specialty produce for local restaurants. He also teaches entrepreneurship classes in Michigan prisons.

"You need to capture people [while they're incarcerated] and keep them motivated to do good things when they get out," he told lawmakers.

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--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.