Vague terminology in current Mississippi law can set up for failure some former inmates who are trying to integrate back into society and either get a job or start a business. A Republican state lawmaker wants to fix that.
The bipartisan Fresh Start Act (HB 1284) seeks to offer non-violent offenders a fresh start by changing the rules for occupational licensing.
"Virtually every occupational licensing process has a disqualifier [that] would prevent someone who has been convicted of a felony or someone who has been convicted of a crime of 'moral turpitude' to obtain an occupational license," explains Mississippi State Representative Mark Baker (R), co-sponsor of the Fresh Start Act. "We understand what the goal is and what the intent is. The problem is that 'moral turpitude' is not defined in the law – so that could be anything."
HB 1284 seeks to change this by having licensing boards determine what exactly qualifies as a disqualifying event for an occupational license.
"For example, if one of the occupations involved the handling of money, maybe embezzlement would be a disqualifying event; [likewise] you wouldn't put someone who was convicted of a sex offense in a position where they could get a license to operate a daycare," Baker offers as examples.
"We want to make sure that we narrow the scope to those things that are critical to the occupations and the vocations [themselves] – and the other thing is to make clear for people that when you're working your way towards the license that you're not wasting your time."
According to Baker, "another thing that Mississippians have to realize" is that a majority of prison inmates are going to be released for having served their time.
"If these individuals are expected to integrate back into society and to engage in gainful employment and they can't obtain a vocational or occupational license to engage in gainful employment, we're essentially setting up failure," Baker argues.
"By setting up this failure we're not going to be able to reduce the recidivism rate, the repeat crime rate; and we're going to basically end up with many of these people back in jail, back in prison, because they were unable to find legitimate lawful gainful employment."
Democratic State Representatives Kathy Sykes and Carl Mickens are co-sponsors of the Fresh Start Act. A companion bill, Senate Bill 2781, has been introduced in the Mississippi Senate by Republican State Senator John Polk.