RALEIGH — A bill making its way through the General Assembly would allow former convicts to earn a certificate that enables them to apply for professional licenses that convicted felons are now forbidden from getting.
House Bill 641 aims to help stop criminals from repeating their crimes by removing barriers that prevent them from finding lawful employment. Convicts have about a 50 percent chance of returning to prison within three years of their release, according to the state's sentencing commission, costing taxpayers about $27,000 an inmate a year.
Under current law, anyone convicted of a felony in North Carolina is prohibited from obtaining licenses for about 700 occupations, including barbering and nursing.
"Even pest control. You can't even spray bugs if you get a felony in North Carolina," said Dennis Gaddy, director of the Community Success Initiative, a nonprofit in Raleigh that lobbies the legislature on behalf of ex-offenders.
The bill was sponsored by David Guice, a Republican from Brevard who cites a two-word mantra.
"Steady employment," Guice said. "That's one of the most critical factors in determining whether someone will commit another crime or become a productive citizen."
Guice worked for three decades as a chief probation and parole officer in Western North Carolina before coming to Raleigh to serve in the General Assembly three years ago.
Guice's bill is based on a recommendation of the Safe Street Task Force, a 2009 initiative to reduce the number of ex-offenders who commit crimes after their release from prison. The bill passed the House with overwhelming support last week and has been referred to a Senate judiciary committee.
Another sponsor, Elmer Floyd, a Democrat from Cumberland County, said it gives ex-offenders who are trying to straighten up "another tool in the toolbox."
"This is a step in that direction," Floyd added, "so that in the future there will not be as many roadblocks."
Gaddy, a member of the state committee that crafted the bill, said the bill is appealing to the Republican majority in part because of the economic challenges faced by the state.
"There's a push to stop building prisons. That's a big line item," he said. "Education and corrections are the two biggest line items."
Ajamu Dillahunt, an outreach coordinator with the liberal N.C. Justice Center, described the bill as leveling the playing field for ex-offenders by increasing the likelihood they will be hired for work, or at least called in for a job interview.
Optimism on passage
"Even with all of the debate on so many policy issues, the (legislators) are able to see how important this is at the moment," Dillahunt said. "There are fiscal issues, public safety concerns and the moral issue that everyone deserves a second chance. It's a perfect storm for getting this type of legislation passed."
The bill would allow convicted felons who qualify to petition the court for a Certificate of Restoration of Rights. The certificate doesn't clear their record, but it does provide tangible evidence that they are trying to put their lives back together and are determined not to return to a life of crime, said Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper, a supporter.
Before a petition can be considered by the court, victims of the ex-offender must be given a chance to participate in the process.
"If they have not been in trouble since their conviction, are gainfully employed or receiving educational training or trying to get a job, then the courts can grant their petition," Talley said. "It's not an automatic thing, but if they get it, they can use it as proof that says, 'Look, I'm on the right track now.'"
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