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.
On April 17 a diverse bipartisan group of civil rights, advocacy, and business organizations, including CCRC, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Carranza expressing concern over the restrictions imposed by the SBA on people with a record of arrest or conviction under two programs recently authorized by Congress in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The letter points out that these unwarranted restrictions on loan programs intended to aid small businesses and non-profits will have a significant and detrimental impact in communities across the country, and a particularly harsh effect on minority business owners and employees who are disproportionately affected by the criminal legal system as a result of institutional discrimination. It urges that federal relief be made equitably accessible to all who need it.
The letter describes how the SBA’s program restrictions based on record are
- unnecessary and confusing
- inconsistent with Congress’ intent in enacting the CARES Act
- overbroad and unfair
- racially discriminatory
In conclusion, the letter urges the SBA to take the following steps:
- At a minimum, bring the record restrictions for PPP and EIDL programs in line with those that applied to Section 7(a) and 7(b) loans under regulations adopted prior to enactment of the CARES Act.
- Relax existing rules and policies that restrict access to PPP or EIDL financial assistance for people with a record in the urgent circumstances presented by the pandemic, in line with the purposes of the CARES Act.
- Ensure that the application forms for SBA financial assistance accurately reflect the eligibility requirements and are written in a clear manner.
An Appendix to the letter describes how the new rules and policies governing the Payroll Protection Program are more restrictive than those governing the 7(a) program generally, and how barriers based on arrest or conviction may also disqualify people with any sort of a record from loans under the EIDL program authorized under the SBA’s existing 7(b) disaster loan program.
The letter —available in PDF and reprinted below – was sent by the following organizations:
American Civil Liberties Union
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Collateral Consequences Resource Center
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
Drug Policy Alliance
Georgia Justice Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana
Justice Action Network
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Employment Law Project
Public Interest Law Center
Reproductive Justice Inside
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Women Against Registry