Federal policies block loans to small business owners with a record

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.

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Collected resources on record restrictions for small business relief

*NEW POST (Jan. 21, 2021): Applying for SBA COVID-19 relief with a criminal record in 2021

On this page, we collected a variety of materials on the restrictions related to arrest or conviction imposed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) on small business owners seeking relief under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program during 2020. Included are proposed reform legislation, lawsuits filed, academic studies, letters from legislators and major organizations, articles by us and by others, and official documents related to this issue. (For more current information, see: Applying for SBA COVID-19 relief with a criminal record in 2021.)

After the first COVID-19 relief bill in March 2020, the CARES Act, the SBA imposed broad criminal history restrictions on applicants. Following the introduction of a bipartisan Senate bill, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin agreed on June 10, 2020, to revise the PPP restrictions.  On June 12, 2020, SBA issued new regulations and applications forms to ease some of the barriers in the PPP.  On June 24, 2020, the SBA further relaxed its criminal history barriers for PPP assistance, this time in a far more significant fashion, and in a manner that makes the business owners who are suing the SBA now eligible to apply.  The new regulation and application form came less a week before the June 30, 2020 deadline to apply for relief.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits were filed against the SBA in federal court in Maryland, asserting that the SBA’s criminal history restrictions are beyond the agency’s authority, arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to the text of the CARES Act; the second lawsuit also asserts that the restrictions fall hardest on minority businesses due to the impact of over-criminalization on communities of color.  On June 29, 2020, a federal judge ruled that the SBA’s criminal history restrictions on PPP, except for the June 24 policy change, were likely unlawful.  The court extended the deadline to apply, but only for the small business owners who had sued.

In a dramatic finale, Congress extended the PPP application deadline to August 8, 2020 for everyone.  This extension, signed into law on July 4, gave business owners made eligible under the June 24, 2020 policy a meaningful opportunity to learn about their eligibility and complete the application process.

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Senate bill would deliver relief to small biz owners with a record

*UPDATE (7/7/20):  “SBA throws in the towel and Congress extends the PPP deadline

After Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars for small business relief during COVID-19, the Small Business Administration (SBA) imposed restrictions on applicants with an arrest or conviction history.  These barriers, neither required nor contemplated by Congress, impede access to the two major relief programs for small businesses, nonprofits, and independent contractors: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

A major development in Congress signals the likely elimination of most of these restrictions, which would make crucial economic assistance newly available to many small business owners with a record.  On June 4, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), James Lankford (R-OK), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act.

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Organizations call on Congress to remove record-related barriers to small business relief

A bipartisan group of civil rights, advocacy, and business organizations, including CCRC, are calling on Congress to take immediate action to remove barriers based on arrest or conviction history for small business owners seeking COVID-19 federal relief.  This is an issue we have been covering in depth in recent posts.  This call to action—available in PDF and reprinted below—is issued by the following organizations (with additional sign-ons welcome; contact us here):

American Civil Liberties Union
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Collateral Consequences Resource Center
College & Community Fellowship
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
Main Street Alliance
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Employment Law Project
Out For Justice
Public Interest Law Center
Reproductive Justice Inside
Root & Rebound
Safer Foundation
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Women Against Registry

*Note: the letter was originally issued on April 10 and was last updated on April 17.

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SBA to relax some rules on loans to people with a record, but most left in place

600px-US-SmallBusinessAdmin-Seal.svgIn December 2014, Amy Solomon, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs in the Justice Department, testified before the U.S. Senate Addiction Forum about the review of collateral consequences federal agencies had been conducting under the auspices of the Federal Reentry Council.  She reported that most of the agencies participating in the review had concluded their collateral consequences were “appropriately tailored for their purposes.”  However, she also reported that Small Business Administration (SBA) had proposed amendments to its regulations to allow people on probation or parole to qualify for loans from its microloan program.  (The change, proposed almost a year ago, has still not become final.)

We decided to take a look at the SBA’s proposed rule change, and at the SBA regulatory scheme more generally, to see how having a criminal record affects small business eligibility for government-backed loans. Read more