Mnuchin defends record restrictions for SBA stimulus loans

We have written much in recent days about how the SBA has imposed new restrictions on participation in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by small business owners with a record of arrest or conviction.  We were therefore surprised to hear Secretary Mnuchin at the White House press briefing yesterday assert that the new SBA rules are actually more favorable to this population than the old ones.  That is simply not true.

Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules for its 7(a) loan program—of which the PPP is the newest part—disqualified only people with open criminal cases.  People with past records were subject to an individual evaluation.  In launching the PPP, the SBA imposed entirely new mandatory disqualifications that were neither part of SBA’s preexisting regulations nor required by the CARES Act.  New PPP rules and policies prohibit loans to any small business owner who, in the past five years, had a felony conviction, plea, or was placed on probation, parole, or diversion, even without a conviction.

Yet at a press conference yesterday following Senate approval of additional PPP funds, Mnuchin claimed exactly the opposite.  Responding to a question about the President’s comment the day before that he would look into the issue of people with records being denied access to small business loans, the Secretary stated that he had “worked with the White House” to “specifically design” the PPP program to reflect criminal justice reform efforts led by Jared Kushner and others in the Trump Administration.  As a result, he said, the new five-year disqualification period is “significantly shorter than what had been done before . . . . There were a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access previously and we changed those regulations.”  (The clip is here, starting at 7:38; a transcript is below.)

The Secretary’s explanation is so wildly off the mark that it is hard to believe he was simply misinformed.  More likely, he was reporting on how the SBA’s 7(a) loan program has been administered in practice, unwittingly revealing an unwritten policy of categorical exclusion in spite of formal policies calling for individual review.  That peek at how a risk-averse bureaucracy actually operates out of the public eye would be no surprise to people who have experienced it.

In the run-up to the drafting of the new stimulus bill, several bipartisan coalitions and policy experts urged Congress and the SBA to ensure that  justice-involved people who have started small businesses—and their employees—can obtain stimulus funds.  But Mnuchin yesterday seemed to shut that door: “For now, we’re not going to do that.”

We strongly encourage the Secretary to take another look, and to do it quickly, before the new PPP funds are authorized and distributed.  As Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation wrote in this space yesterday, “During this trying time, the SBA must reexamine these regulations to ensure that small businesses that made the most of one second chance don’t have it taken away through no fault of their own.”

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Prosecutors’ role in deciding how long people stay in prison

A timely new article from CCRC board member Nora V. Demleitner, law professor at Washington and Lee University, considers the central role of prosecutors in determining who goes to jail and prison and how long they stay there.  Demleitner reviews—as a “case study of prosecutorial authority”—prosecutors’ actions to reduce confined populations during the COVID-19 crisis.  While prosecutors’ key role in charging and sentencing at the front end of a criminal case is well-established, in ordinary times their influence in its later stages, including in prison release decisions, is not so obvious.  Professor Demleitner shows how the pandemic “highlights the tools prosecutors have at their disposal and how they can directly impact the size of the criminal justice system.”  This in turn leads her to consider how “prosecutorial thinking” focused on public safety as opposed to public health “increasingly influences other branches of government” even in the midst of a pandemic.

Professor Demleitner’s article, “State Prosecutors at the Center of Mass Imprisonment and Criminal Justice Reform,” will be published in the April 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter.  The abstract is included below:

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The Marshall Project reports on criminal history barriers to small business relief

In the past two weeks we have written at length about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)’s “bumpy guidance on criminal history requirements” for small business financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic (see also “Applying for an SBA loan with a criminal record“).  Today, Eli Hager of The Marshall Project has picked up the story with a new piece that draws on our research and will bring the story to a wider audience.  We hope this will prompt the SBA to revise its policy, or guide Congress toward clearer and fairer standards if it passes a planned new round of small business assistance.

Before the pandemic, the SBA didn’t automatically disqualify people for small business loans based on a past criminal record, and we can’t understand why it would suddenly decide to do so now, when small businesses across the country are struggling to stay afloat.  (Preexisting policy, described here, disqualifies a business if it has a principal who is incarcerated, is under supervision, is facing charges, or lacks “good character.”)  The new SBA policy—which automatically disqualifies even certain people who have completed a diversionary program and were never convicted—seems entirely at odds with the wave of recent state and federal law reforms aimed at encouraging reintegration.

The Marshall Project piece notes that “never in recent U.S. history have so many conservatives and liberals agreed that people with criminal histories deserve a second chance—especially job-creating small-business owners.”  It is no wonder that the SBA “did not respond Tuesday to multiple requests for clarification,” when its new policy is so indefensible.

An excerpt from The Marshall Project piece, “Trump Administration Tells Some Business Owners ‘Do Not Apply’ for Coronavirus Loans,” is included below:

Michelle E. of Scottsdale, Arizona, was relieved when President Trump last month signed into law the sweeping stimulus package intended to keep the U.S. economy afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michelle and her husband have owned a small hardwood flooring business for 18 years. She hoped the law’s $350 billion for small-business loans would help them avoid laying off any of their five employees, whom she said are like family. So she got a loan application through her bank.

But as she filled it out, Michelle saw the question: Had any of the business owners pleaded guilty to or been on probation for a criminal offense? Michelle immediately thought of her husband, who is on probation because he took a guilty plea on a theft charge after taking home the scope of someone else’s rifle on a hunting trip, something he says he did accidentally. His name and her last name are being withheld because his criminal case, and the couple’s loan application, are pending.

“Because of that, our employees can’t get help from the United States government?” Michelle said.

It’s a little noticed frustration compared to the logistical problems of the Trump administration’s rollout of the CARES Act. A set of new regulations for implementing the law, issued by the Small Business Administration, prohibits small-business owners with criminal records from accessing the desperately needed loans.

“We have never seen such a sweeping mandatory disqualification based on a criminal record, in any area of the law,” wrote the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan website that tracks how federal, state and local laws affect people with past charges or convictions. The site is run by Margaret Love, who was the U.S. Pardon Attorney during the Clinton administration.

[. . . .]

Critics of the new regulations said the rules waste precious time examining people’s pasts when so many are, with each new day, losing their lives or livelihoods.  One New Jersey pet-supply store owner with a 10-year-old felony conviction put it this way in an email to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center: It is as if, after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, rescuers flying in helicopters asked families stranded on their roofs if they had ever faced a criminal charge.“

And if anyone answered yes,” he wrote, “they would move along to the next house.”

Report Card: Grading states on 2019 record reforms

The following is an excerpt from our recent annual report on legislative reforms, Pathways to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2019.

Report Card

For the first time this year we have prepared a “Report Card” on how state legislatures performed in 2019 in advancing the goals of reintegration.  We have not covered all states, only those we thought most and least productive.  We hope this new feature of our annual reports will provide an incentive to legislatures across the nation, and a tool for legislative advocates.

New Jersey gets the top mark as Reintegration Champion of 2019 for the most consequential legislative record of any state last year.

In this inaugural year, New Jersey gets the top mark as Reintegration Champion of 2019 for the most consequential legislative record of any state last year.  New Jersey’s “Clean Slate” law authorized an automated record-clearing process for many thousands of misdemeanor and felony convictions going back decades, and extended eligibility and improved procedures for petition-based discretionary expungement  relief.  New Jersey enacted two other important laws promoting reintegration.  One limited felony disenfranchisement to people in prison, immediately restoring the vote to about 80,000 people still completing their sentences in the community.  Unlike the executive orders that have this effect in New York and Kentucky, New Jersey’s law will not be easily retracted when the statehouse changes hands.  Another new law repealed provisions mandating suspension of driver’s licenses for conviction of drug and other non-driving crimes, for failure to pay court debt, and for failure to pay child support.

In commending New Jersey’s legislative accomplishments, we would be remiss not to recognize the key role played by Governor Phil Murphy in making criminal record reform the cornerstone of his legislative agenda, and by key legislative leaders, who together persuaded the legislature to enact in a single year a bolder set of reintegration laws than any other in the country to the present time.[i]

As runner-up, Colorado enacted 10 laws on criminal records, voting rights, ban-the-box, and immigration.

Colorado is runner up for our new Reintegration Champion award, based on a prolific legislative record that is a close second to New Jersey’s.  In 2019 Colorado enacted ten record reform laws, among them an ambitious rewriting of its code chapter on criminal records, a law restoring voting rights to parolees and one extending ban-the-box to private employers, and two new measures to avoid deportation as a consequence of conviction. Colorado’s productive 2019 followed an almost equally productive 2018, when its legislature regulated occupational licensing agencies and gave its courts authority to remove mandatory collateral penalties.

Honorable mention goes to 6 states (IL, MS, NV, NM, ND, WV) for productive legislative seasons, while 5 other states (AR, DE, CA, NY, UT) were recognized for a specific notable new law.    

Honorable mention for a productive legislative season goes to six states: Illinois and Nevada (with nine and eight laws, respectively, some significant); New Mexico and North Dakota (for their comprehensive first-ever record-sealing schemes, and ban-the-box bills);  Mississippi (for its extensive regulation of occupational licensing, management of diversion courts, and repeal of mandatory driver’s license penalties for drug and other non-driving crimes); and West Virginia (for two significant laws, on record relief and occupational licensing, as well as a diversion bill).  Five additional states deserve recognition for notable enactments:  Arkansas for a major revision of its occupational licensing law; California and Utah for their automated record relief laws (though Utah’s scheme is not as far-reaching as New Jersey’s, and California’s is prospective only); New York for two measures to limit access to undisposed (pending) cases; and Delaware for its first comprehensive expungement scheme.

Low marks go to three of the seven states that enacted no record reform laws at all in 2019: the legislatures of Alaska, Georgia, and Michigan have been the least productive in the land in recent years where restoration of rights and status is concerned.  Kansas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania also produced no new laws in 2019, but all four states enacted major record reforms in 2018 so we give them a pass.

We conclude by noting that many of the states not mentioned in this inaugural Report Card made progress last year in limiting access to and use of criminal records, and we were hard-pressed not to single a few more of them out for credit.  It is clear to us that almost every state sees criminal record reform as an important and challenging legislative agenda.  We anticipate that in 2020 states that have been comparatively cautious in their recent law-making will be inspired to take larger steps as they see what more ambitious jurisdictions have already been able to accomplish.

Note: In response to this report, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted:

Read the full report here.

[i] See, e.g., Governor Murphy’s statement accompanying his “conditional veto” in August 2019 of an early version of the bill that would become the Clean Slate law that he signed on December 19, 2019.  In that statement, after applauding the legislature’s extension of eligibility for petition-based expungement, he noted the example set by Pennsylvania’s own Clean Slate law the year before:

“Only those individuals who actually apply for an expungement, meaning those who are aware of this potential remedy and have the wherewithal to navigate the legal process or afford an attorney to assist them, would be able to seek the relief afforded by the expungement process. This method is not the most efficient means for clean slate expungement, nor will it deliver relief to all eligible individuals who need it. To avoid this shortcoming, we should follow the lead of Pennsylvania and undertake the necessary steps to establish an automated, computerized expungement system that would allow people with multiple convictions for less serious, non-violent crimes who maintain a clean record for ten years to clear their criminal histories without having to hire a lawyer or wade through a paperwork-intensive process. Our system is not set up to do this now, and undertaking this task will require buy-in and commitment from all three branches of government. On behalf of the executive branch, that is a commitment I am more than willing to make.”

See https://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/562019/docs/S3205CV.pdf.  Senator Sandra Cunningham, Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin were particularly effective partners in the negotiations that resulted in the bill that was approved by the legislature in December.

Record-breaking number of new expungement laws enacted in 2019

This is the third in a series of comments describing some of the 153 laws passed in 2019 restoring rights or delivering record relief.  The full report on 2019 laws is available here.

Criminal record relief (expungement, sealing, set aside)

As in past years, the reform measure most frequently enacted in 2019 was record relief, i.e. expungement, sealing, or other mechanism to limit access to criminal records or set aside convictions.  This past year, 31 states and D.C. enacted no fewer than 67 separate bills creating, expanding, or streamlining record relief.  This total does not include a dozen other new laws authorizing non-conviction dispositions that will be eligible for record-clearing under existing law.  A trend we observed in our 2018 report toward “a growing preference for more transparent restoration mechanisms” that limit use of a criminal record, as opposed to access, does not appear so obvious to us this year.  If anything, jurisdictions appear to be looking for new efficiencies in clearing records.

In 2019, 27 states and D.C. made certain classes of convictions newly eligible for expungement, sealing, or vacatur relief.  Five of those states enacted their first general authority for expunging or sealing convictions (North Dakota, New Mexico, West Virginia, Delaware, Iowa), making record relief available for the first time to thousands of people.   Nonetheless, most potential beneficiaries of these new relief schemes find them hard to navigate:  eligibility criteria are frequently complex and unclear, and court procedures are usually intimidating, burdensome and expensive.  These and other barriers to access have been shown to discourage the law’s intended beneficiaries.

To obviate the need for individual applications, in 2019 three states followed the example set by Pennsylvania’s 2018 “Clean Slate Act” by enacting automatic relief for a range of conviction and non-conviction records (Utah, California, New Jersey).  Specific provisions of these important new laws are described in the following pages, and in greater detail in the relevant state profiles in the Restoration of Rights Project.  Six additional states focused automatic relief provisions on specific offenses or dispositions (

, Illinois, New York, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas).

Also notable were bills providing relief for victims of human trafficking and for marijuana offenses.  Seven states and D.C. authorized relief for victims of human trafficking, allowing them to vacate, expunge, and seal a range of criminal records resulting from their status as a victim.   Seven other states—all of which have legalized or decriminalized marijuana—authorized record relief for certain marijuana offenses, including two automated relief measures (New York and Illinois).

In addition to these marijuana measures, which often extend to arrests and other non-conviction records, eleven states extended relief to certain non-conviction records for the first time.  Most far-reaching, new provisions in New York’s annual budget bill limited access to cases in which there has been no docket entry for five years; precluded the inclusion of such undisposed cases in background check reports; and extended New York’s automatic sealing of non-convictions to cases decided prior to the enactment of that relief in 1992

Finally, thirteen states enacted 18 laws to streamline and/or make more effective the procedures for obtaining relief under existing mechanisms.  Three states (Colorado, Washington, and New York) made particularly noteworthy and broad-based procedural reforms to their criminal records laws.

***********

To summarize the bounteous haul of record relief laws enacted in 2019, we have organized them into three categories: (1) new automatic relief schemes; (2) new petition-based relief; and (3) improved procedures and effect of existing record relief mechanisms.

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Broken records: criminal history errors cost jobs and housing

Ariel Nelson of the National Consumer Law Center has authored an important new report, Broken Records Redux, which describes how errors by criminal background check companies harm consumers seeking jobs and housing.  In particular, the report shows how background screeners continue to include sealed and expunged records in criminal background check reports, omit disposition information, misclassify offenses, mismatch the subjects of records, and include other misleading information.  The report also examines problems arising from the use of automated processes to evaluate prospective employees and tenants.

This report, a sequel to a 2012 NCLC report on criminal background errors, observes that since 2012 advocates and federal agencies have litigated many actions for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), leading to settlements and judgments requiring background screeners to reform their processes and pay millions in penalties and relief to consumers.  Despite these lawsuits, “companies continue to generate inaccurate reports that have grave consequences for consumers seeking jobs and housing.”  Based on these issues, the report recommends a broad array of legislative and regulatory changes at the federal and state level.  Accompanying the report is an article: Fertile Ground for FCRA Claims, which describes FCRA violations that can result from “inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated” background checks.

This new report also provides support for policy recommendations in our recently released Model Law on Non-Conviction Records, including restrictions on the dissemination of expunged records and records indicating no disposition by commercial providers of criminal records.

“For expungement and clean slate laws to succeed in removing barriers to employment and housing, they must take into account issues like background check reporting, data aggregation, and the use of stale data,” says Nelson, the author of the NCLC report. “I’m happy to see that CCRC’s Model Law on Non-Conviction Records provides guidance for addressing those issues.”

Model law proposes automatic expungement of non-conviction records

An advisory group drawn from across the criminal justice system has completed work on a model law that recommends automatic expungement of most arrests and charges that do not result in conviction.  Margaret Love and David Schlussel of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center served as reporters for the model law.  It is available in PDF and HTML formats.

“Many people may not realize how even cases that terminate in a person’s favor lead to lost opportunities and discrimination,” says Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and one of the advisors of the model law project.  “Over the years, my legal aid program has seen thousands of cases where non-convictions cost people jobs.”

In proposing broad restrictions on access to and use of non-conviction records, the project aims to contribute to conversations underway in legislatures across the country about how to improve opportunities for people with a criminal record.  Already in 2019, states have enacted more than 130 new laws addressing the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction.  The group regards its model as the first step in a broader law reform initiative that will address conviction records as well.

Law enforcement officials make over 10 million arrests each year, a substantial percentage of which do not lead to charges or conviction.  Records of these arrests have become widely available as a result of digitized records systems and a new commerce in background screening and data aggregation.  These checks often turn up an “open” arrest or charges without any final disposition, which may seem to an employer or landlord more ominous than a closed case.

Very few states have taken steps to deal with the high percentage of records in repositories and court systems with no final disposition indicated.  Paul McDonnell, Deputy Counsel for New York’s Office of Court Administration and a project advisor, noted: “Criminal records that include no final disposition make it appear to the untrained eye that an individual has an open, pending case, which can have serious results for that person. New York has recently made legislative progress in addressing this problem, though more can be done.”

Current state and federal laws restricting access to and use of non-conviction records have limited application and are hard to enforce.  Eligibility criteria tend to be either unclear or restrictive, and petition-based procedures tend to be burdensome, expensive, and intimidating.  In recent years, lawmakers and reform advocates have expressed a growing interest in curbing the widespread dissemination and use of non-convictions, leading some states to simplify and broaden eligibility for relief, reduce procedural and financial barriers to access, and in a handful of states to make relief automatic.

Rep. Mike Weissman, a Colorado State Representative and model law project advisor, noted that Colorado has recently overhauled its laws on criminal records with broad bipartisan support.  “It is heartening to see similar reforms underway in other states, both red and blue, as well.  I commend the practitioners and researchers who helped formulate the model law for illustrating avenues for further progress in reducing collateral consequences.”

The model law would take this wave of criminal record reforms to a new level.  It recommends that expungement be immediate and automatic where all charges are terminated in favor of an accused.  Uncharged arrests should also be automatically expunged after a brief waiting period, as should dismissed or acquitted charges in cases where other charges result in conviction.  Cases that indicate no final disposition should also be expunged, unless there is indication that they are in fact pending.

The model law also recommends that expunged non-conviction records should not be used against a person in a range of criminal justice decisions, including by law enforcement agencies.  It would prohibit commercial providers of criminal background checks from disseminating expunged and dated non-conviction records, and civil decision-makers from considering them.

David LaBahn, President of the national Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, indicated that organization’s support for the model law, stating that the collateral consequences of non-convictions “do not serve to make the community safer,” and that “the current structures in place to expunge a non-conviction record can be confusing and difficult for the layperson to navigate alone.”

This model law sets the stage for jurisdictions to address record relief for convictions more generally, and its structure and principles can be brought to bear on that important work.

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center organized this model law project.  An early draft of the model law was discussed at an August 2019 Roundtable conference at the University of Michigan that was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation.  The model law report was supported by Arnold Ventures.

Read the model law in PDF or HTML.

CCRC to hold roundtable on criminal records at U. Michigan Law School

We are pleased to announce that we are convening a roundtable meeting in August 2019, hosted by the University of Michigan Law School, to develop a model law on access to and use of criminal records, specifically in cases that do not result in a conviction.

In March, we began a major study of the public availability and use of these non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred and diversionary dispositions, and acquittals.   Law enforcement agencies and courts frequently make these records available to the public allowing widespread dissemination on the internet, both directly and through private for-profit databases.  Their appearance in background checks can lead to significant discrimination against people who have never been convicted of a crime, and result unfairly in barriers to employment, housing, education, and many other opportunities.  Research has shown that limiting public access to criminal records through mechanisms like sealing and expungement increases the earning ability of those who receive this relief, which in turn benefits their families and communities.

The problems of access and use are not limited to private actors:  a recent court decision in New York suggests that police departments in some jurisdictions make operational use of sealed non-conviction records even when the law prohibits it.

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Abusing the pardon power is no joke

In the past we have commented in this space on constructive uses of the presidential pardon power, to reduce prison sentences and restore rights.  Today we reprint an op ed from Slate.com describing a recent episode allegedly involving its abuse, by Yale Law School Professor Eugene Fidell and CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love.  In addition, several bills have recently been introduced in Congress that would enact a statutory substitute for pardon where restoration of rights is concerned.  We will be following these bills closely, and commenting on them here from time to time.

Trump’s DHS Pardon Promise Is As Serious As Anything in the Mueller Report

By EUGENE R. FIDELL and MARGARET COLGATE LOVE

APRIL 24, 2019 6:00 PM

The week since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report has felt like a whirlwind, with Congress considering how next to approach the unresolved questions raised about the conduct of Donald Trump and his administration, and the nation bracing for a potentially historic subpoena fight. At the same time, news around the Mueller report has overtaken news of another possible abuse of power by this president—allegations that Trump promised to pardon an official if he broke the law at the president’s request. While the episode has been written off by some as a joke, it is no such thing: Congress has an obligation to investigate these allegations as much as anything in the Mueller report.

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PA’s new pardon chief was just pardoned himself

Freed from prison nine years ago, Brandon Flood is new secretary of Pa.’s pardon board

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 2019

by Will Bunch

This column will probably come as something of a shock to all the people in Harrisburg who only know Brandon Flood – a bow-tied, bespectacled policy wonk with sartorial flair – as the persona that he laughingly calls “Urkel Brandon,” in a homage to one of TV’s most famous nerds.

Flood, now 36, readily admits most folks who know him from nearly a decade as a legislative aide or lobbyist will be shocked to learn of his past that includes boot camp for juvenile offenders, a physical scuffle with Harrisburg’s then-police chief, and finally felony convictions and two lengthy prison stints for dealing crack cocaine and carrying an unlicensed gun.

But starting last week, Flood’s turnaround saga has become a talking point and a mission statement for his new job as secretary of the five-member Pennsylvania Board of Pardons – anchoring one leg of a broader push in Harrisburg for criminal justice reform, aimed at giving more convicted felons a chance for clemency or to wipe their slate clean with a pardon.

What makes Flood’s appointment even more remarkable is that – to steal a phrase from TV infomercial lore – he’s not just Pennsylvania’s new top pardons administrator, he’s also a client. Gov. Wolf signed off on Flood’s own board-approved pardon, erasing his past convictions, just a few weeks before Flood stepped in as secretary.

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