Several days ago, I got a call from Scott Jennings, a fellow board member of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, who was fired up after reading the recent Small Business Administration business loan application.
Scott, who served time in prison years ago, is now a highly successful entrepreneur. Like many other entrepreneurs, he has worked very hard to start a new life, and his business has been significantly impacted by the new coronavirus crisis. But the application for the SBA loans meant to keep small business owners afloat discriminate against previous felons.
Despite strides in criminal justice reform, finding a job is still one of the hardest challenges for the formerly incarcerated.
The CARES Act, which is supposed to provide relief for all business owners, including former felons, shouldn’t make staying alive during this time of lockdowns and potential layoffs harder as well — it’s already hard enough.
The act includes a provision to make $350 billion in loans available to small businesses through the SBA. The loans are meant to help businesses, like Scott’s, and their employees. In the application for loans, there are two questions that immediately caught his attention:
“Is the applicant (if an individual) or any individual owning 20% or more of the equity of the applicant subject to an indictment, criminal information, arraignment, or other means by which formal criminal charges are brought in any jurisdiction, or presently incarcerated, or on probation or parole?”
“Within the last five years, for any felony, has the applicant (if an individual) or any owner of the applicant 1) been convicted; 2) pleaded guilty; 3) pleaded nolo contendere; 4) been placed on pretrial diversion; or 5) been placed on any form of parole or probation (including probation before judgment)?”
The timing of such questions in a loan application is, at best, suspect.
While it is true that this is similar to the language that existed before the pandemic, it calls into question the fairness of the questions themselves and whether it is right to exclude people from relief who were formerly judicially involved.
In the worst case, these questions will lead to discrimination against judicially involved people. In the best case, which is more subtle and probably more important and prevalent, the language here will discourage many people with criminal records from even applying.
In our discussion about the application, Scott noted, “I was not exactly a model citizen. I committed a crime. I went to prison for three years and now I have changed every aspect of my life and my role within society. I’ve been the owner of a thriving business for the past nine years. Just like any other business owner, I have families that depend on me.”
While Scott’s business may qualify for a stimulus loan since his charges are not recent, there are many people like him who won’t.
Most people agree that, if people commit a crime, they should be required to give something back to society; they should be punished. But people shouldn’t serve perpetual sentences via a stigma or discrimination that basically relegates them to a life sentence even for minor crimes.