Starting a small business is increasingly recognized as a pathway to opportunity for individuals with an arrest or conviction history—particularly given the disadvantages they face in the labor market. An estimated 4% of small businesses in the United States have an owner with a conviction (1.5% have a felony conviction). Small businesses provide “a vital opportunity for those with a criminal record to contribute to society, to earn an honest profit, and to give back to others.” They also frequently employ people with a record and help reduce recidivism. A growing number of organizations and government programs are devoted to supporting individuals with a record in building their own businesses.
Yet many structural barriers remain, including a series of little-known federal regulations and policies that impose broad criminal history restrictions on access to government-sponsored business loans, notably by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). A recent article illustrates the steep challenges faced by business owners with a record by telling the stories of several entrepreneurs who were either denied an SBA loan or were discouraged from even trying for one because of a dated felony conviction. One of those entrepreneurs comments: “You might do five years, ten years, one year, but you pay for it until you’re in the grave.”
To illuminate and help reduce these barriers, our organization is working to develop a new “Fair Chance Lending” project. We hope to show that—rather than broadly exclude individuals with a criminal history—officials should draw record-based restrictions as narrowly as feasible, facilitate access to resources, and celebrate entrepreneurial efforts, consistent with growing national support for reintegration and fair chances in civil society.