On September 15, the SBA published for comment a series of rule changes eliminating criminal record restrictions in all of its various federally guaranteed business and disaster loan programs, including rules making business owners ineligible for loans if they are on parole or probation or under indictment. Application forms and procedures will no longer inquire about a business owner’s criminal history, with one exception: Owners and principal employees who are “actually incarcerated” will remain ineligible. Comments on the proposed rule must be filed by November 14, 2023.
The proposed new rule follows the agency’s removal last spring of “character” as a loan criterion in the 7(a) and 504 programs, and its amendment of the applicable Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to eliminate the “character determination” through which business owners with a felony record had been denied access to federally guaranteed loans. These earlier changes were described in our post of September 7.
The comments accompanying the proposed rule revision explain that it is “narrowly tailored to reduce barriers to access for qualified justice-impacted small business owners.” While the SBA will no longer verify an applicant’s criminal history (other than the fact of current incarceration) the rules changes do affect a lending institution’s ability to do so, “in accordance with their own policies, provided they do so in a manner that complies with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and other relevant laws.”
Significantly, in proposing these new and important regulatory changes, the SBA relies upon empirical research to emphasize that criminal history has not been shown to have any negative impact on creditworthiness:
Importantly, SBA reviewed the relevant research and found no evidence of a negative impact on repayment for qualified individuals with criminal history records in any American business loan program. This lack of data demonstrates that continuing to rely on this restriction for that purpose would contradict the available evidence and although the restrictions may have been originally put in place with the goal of protecting program performance, the lack of data suggests continuing to rely on this restriction would reflect an outdated, inaccurate structural bias against individuals with criminal history records.
The SBA again relies upon research in stressing the policy benefits of its regulatory changes:
Specifically, research demonstrates that employment increases success during reentry and decreases the risk of recidivism, with entrepreneurship providing an important and distinct avenue for economic stability given persistent stigma from employers who may decline to hire people with criminal history records.
It is refreshing to see this federal policy grounded in factual research instead of unfounded assumptions about the risk of extending opportunities to justice-affected individuals, as so many other federal policies are.
At the same time, we remain concerned that, without the SBA acting in a screening capacity, lending institutions will themselves conduct background investigations of loan applicants, and apply record-related restrictions that mirror those previously applied by the SBA, or perhaps ones even more restrictive. We noted in a post last spring, in connection with the SBA’s deletion of “character” as a loan criterion:
[T]he good news is that it appears the SBA will no longer bar banks from making loans to otherwise qualified applicants based on their criminal history. The less good news is that the agency seems to expect banks and other lending institutions to step into the void and apply their own restrictions on loans based on an applicant’s criminal history.
We expect to post further analysis of these important proposed SBA actions.