Thousands of Texans are barred from accessing meaningful employment. That's about to change, thanks to Prison Fellowship's advocacy efforts.
Craige DeRoche, Senior Vice President, Advocacy & Public Policy for Prison Fellowship, and Shon Hopwood, Georgetown professor of law, discuss the need for occupational licensing reform at the Texas State House.
Prison Fellowship's Justice Reform team works diligently year-round to advocate for justice that restores. This work—driven by biblical values—involves more than a dozen state campaigns aimed at making sure punishments for crime are proportional, corrections culture is constructive, and people who have served their time have access to second chances.
This work results in real change that impacts millions. For instance, we're celebrating the recent passage of a bill in the state of Texas—HB 1342—that we were involved with from its beginning. Once this legislation takes effect, thousands of men and women in Texas will then have the opportunity to pursue meaningful vocations, unfettered by unnecessary restrictions.
Until the passage of this bill, Texas prohibited many people with a criminal record from obtaining professional licenses that would allow them to support themselves and their families, even when participating in their chosen careers would have no bearing on public safety. Prison Fellowship® is thrilled that this bill will change the qualifications for occupational licenses for Texans with a criminal record, opening opportunities for more people to make the most of their second chance with stable, rewarding work that benefits their communities and helps them stay out of prison for good.
"What makes this bill different is that it reforms many licenses in Texas," says Craig Deroche, Prison Fellowship's senior vice president of advocacy and public policy. "Other states often only reform one license at a time. With the passage of this bill, Texas is now a leader in America for second-chance hiring. This is a huge step forward for Texans who have repaid their debt and who seek to contribute to the state through their work."
But we didn't get here overnight.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR CHANGE
Prison Fellowship has been engaged in a targeted policy campaign in Texas for three years. Prison Fellowship serves on the executive committee of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition, a bipartisan group of organizations committed to justice reform in the Lone Star State. Alongside our partners, we've been driving forward 13 legislative agenda items, including state jail felony reform, women’s dignity bills, bail reform, and occupational licensing.
We knew reforming occupational licensing in Texas would be a huge undertaking. The state requires licenses for more than 25% of professions. This impacts 1 in 3 working Texans and creates especially difficult barriers for the 4 in 10 Texans who have an arrest or conviction record—like Mia.
Mia, a registered nurse, faced serial abuse at the hands of her husband. When he beat her 8-year-old son, she decided to fight back. For stabbing her child's abuser, Mia was arrested and sentenced to do time in prison. With the support of her warden and pastor, she got out two years later and tried to get on with her life—but it was harder than she ever imagined. Thanks to occupational licensing law restrictions in Texas, she couldn't find work in her field and was barred from nursing because of her conviction.
Mia's experience, along with the experiences of thousands of others like her in Texas, flies in the face of Prison Fellowship's belief that everyone should be treated with inherent dignity as a person made in the image of God, and that society should recognize steps of redemption and reconciliation in a person's life. So we got to work.
In the summer of 2018, we started networking with like-minded lawmakers and organizations. Members of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition partnered with us to draft an early version of the bill that would become HB 1342. A bill won’t go far without legislative sponsors, and we worked with strong bipartisan leaders as bill authors and sponsors, particularly Representative Jeff Leach and Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa.
With a coalition of lawmakers and nonprofits assembled, it was time to educate the public and the Texas legislature.
In January 2019, we organized a day at the Texas State House in Austin to connect with lawmakers. Craig DeRoche was on hand along with our state policy team and more than 30 Justice Ambassadors—local Prison Fellowship volunteers who meet with policymakers, host and support our events, write letters to the editor, and share about justice reform from their own perspectives.
The team spent the day meeting with Texas representatives and senators about the power of second chances and the importance of the occupational licensing reform bill. The same day, we hosted a room of lawmakers, legislative staff, and partners for a panel briefing on the merits of occupational licensing reform. We also did press briefings, a podcast with our partners at Right on Crime, and many other activities to begin the conversation about the potential for people with a record to contribute to their families and communities through their careers.
But that was just the beginning.
From there, Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers made phone calls to state lawmakers, wrote emails and letters, met with stakeholders and lawmakers, and testified in support of licensing reform. We co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion on second chances with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and we authored an opinion article urging lawmakers to reform occupational licensing that was published in the Austin Statesman.
CHANGING LIVES AND SHAPING THE CONVERSATION
Ultimately, both the Texas House of Representatives and Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill. Governor Greg Abbott then signed the bill into law on June 10, 2019. The law will go into effect September 1, 2019.
"This bill will make Texas safer and more prosperous. It lets people who have repaid their debt go back to work growing the Texas economy and become stable, contributing members of their communities," says Craig.
This is just one example of the kind of policy work we do in states across the country. We're helping to shape the criminal justice conversation in America with biblical values and a Gospel-centered worldview.
We want to do even more, but we can't do it without you. Will you help give someone a second chance today by signing the Justice Declaration to join our advocacy network and promote justice that restores in states across the U.S.?
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