Giddings discusses bills to help ex-offenders re-enter society

The Dallas Examiner

While “bathroom bill” and school voucher debates have dominated the conversations of many prior to the Texas Legislature meeting for its 85th session, State Rep. Helen Giddings, District 109, took time to explain other bills up for vote – bills that may create greater impacts for ex-criminal offenders who are now attempting to find stable employment in the job market as they re-enter society.

Giddings spoke at the UNT College of Law downtown Feb. 17 about House Bill 1507 and House Bill 1508. Both are sponsored by the representative and supported by the administration, faculty and students of the law school. Scholars from the UNT program assisted Giddings in the research needed in preparing the bills.

“These students in the law school have studied the issue of re-entry and some of the problems that ex-offenders encounter once they’ve paid their debt to society, and so they have come up with a couple of bills to make that process easier,” she remarked on their work.

HB1507 “increases awareness to judicial clemency while House Bill 1508 will expand access to information around occupational licensing restrictions for ex-offenders,” David Feigen, legislative director for Giddings, noted in a prepared statement.

“These bills are common-sense reforms that will help reverse the systemic barriers to re-entry for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society and turned their lives around,” he wrote further.

HB1507 calls for a standard method for defendants who satisfactorily complete community supervision to be released “… from the penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense” by authorization of the court. Once these individuals have met all criteria that has been legally required of them, they would potentially become free from any indefinite punitive measures, according to Texas Legislature Online.

Royal Furgeson, dean of the school, emphasized that HB1507 does not include clemency for those convicted of violent crime or other serious felonies, and neither bill would endanger public safety in any way.

“These present an opportunity that comes with probated offenders. So these are people, many of them first offenders, who successfully completed probated sentences and so they are very good candidates for judicial clemency,” he said on HB1507. Only a judge would have the discretion to grant such a decree.

“He has seen everything, he has understood what’s happened, and that judge… is best able to decide whether these people are really ready to go back to productive society,” Furgeson offered. Two-thirds of all felony sentences in the state are probated to begin with, he confirmed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that in Texas alone, 5,261 federal inmates were released in 2016. In fiscal 2015, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice released 70,311 inmates. Of that number, 21,781 were Black.

“This would make an enormous difference… in allowing people to having their disabilities waived so they can get back into the workplace,” the dean continued.

HB1508 states that an entity offering an educational program to prepare an individual for an occupational license must inform the individual whether they do or do not qualify for that license.

Currently, in many situations, ex-offenders will go through a licensing program, such as nursing or electrical training, only to find at completion of the program that the law has precluded them from obtaining the license they worked toward due to the nature of their offense. Third-year law student Tahj Walker spoke further about HB1508.

“Part of our research was, again, on occupational licensing and so we wanted to make sure that there was notice given to those who have been convicted of a felony and that they were aware that there was criminal history evaluation letter available to them, whether it be through the [Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation] or another agency,” he said. “So what we wanted to do was basically just widen the scope of their knowledge so that they didn’t go through the process of paying for the classes, going through the training and skills in the field and then only to find out on the back end that they were not eligible for that license – whatever it was – for barber school, et cetera.”

These letters provide information based on the individual’s situation to determine his or her suitability for a license.

“The Department has issued Criminal Conviction Guidelines for each occupation the Department licenses. These guidelines list the crimes which are considered to relate to each occupation, as well as other factors that affect the decisions of the Department,” the TDLR Administration stated.

Stephanie Bell, a law student in her second year, pointed out that those reentering society stood to lose thousands of dollars and hours on training should the bill not pass.

“Through that process, some of the license organizations for that particular field require student permits or exams, and so we found that there are some where, when a person applies for a student summit, they’re not asked about their criminal history. When they apply to the school they’re not asked about their criminal history. When they get to the end of the program they take their exam; they’re not asked about their criminal history, and then after passing everything, meeting all the requirements … then they go to apply for their license and then they’re denied,” she said.

“You’re going to have to pass this background test before you spend all of your money and spend all of the time and effort to go through this class,” Giddings illustrated simply.

While the state already has in place criminal history evaluation letters, they were something that even the law students researching the bill had trouble accessing, Bell said.

“So, by making the schools tell the people about the availability of this letter and how to find the letter, then the students have a better opportunity to be able to utilize that tool and determine before they invest everything whether they’re going to be precluded based on the conviction,” she added.

She pointed out that, at minimum, even receiving news that past convictions bar certain individuals employment from a specific licensed vocation, HB1508 could prevent those people from wasting precious funds and time on a specialized program they were never eligible for by law.

“We’re not looking for them to screen people and do background checks but allow for the individual to make the decision whether that’s an education they still want to pursue or not, and to be able to make an informed decision,” Bell expressed.

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