ROSS NORTON

rnorton@scbiznews.com

The way Jerry Blassingame sees it, South Carolina’s legislature created opportunities both for business operators and for people leaving prison when it voted on June 27 to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a bill that will make it easier to get non-violent, low-level felonies expunged from people’s records.

Prep cook Fred Turner shapes burgers at Greenville’s Kitchen Sync, where he was hired originally to wash dishes. Turner says he approached the job with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, determined to show his new employer that the chance was a gamble worth taking. (Photo/Ross Norton)

State law already permitted the expunction of some first-time minor offenses, but thanks to H3209, multiple minor offenses can now be treated as one conviction for expunction purposes if they were closely connected and arose out of the same incident. First-offense simple drug possession, and possession of drugs with intent to distribute crimes, can now also be expunged under the new law.

The law had widespread support among the state’s business leaders and social reform leaders alike. Supporters think it will put more people in the labor pool while eliminating a major obstacle to employment for those who have been convicted of crimes. In the Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson market, the number of jobs available is about 12,000 larger than the number of people looking for work, according to numbers from the Greenville Chamber of Commerce.

Blassingame is the executive director of Soteria Community Development Corporation in Greenville, which works to help ensure that people leaving the prison system are ready to hold and perform a job. About 9,000 people leave prison in the state each year, and Blassingame said many of them are eager to be employed and to be good employees. But first they need a chance.

Blassingame helps create those chances today, but in 1999, he needed one himself. It came when a woman trusted him enough to give him part-time work at her water-garden business. She trusted him enough to lend him a car so he could get to work.

“She believed in me, and I didn’t want to let her down,” he said.

Soon he was working with Span-America Medical Systems. At both places he worked hard and rose to positions with more responsibility.

“They gave me a chance to grow with the company, and I did a great job,” he said. “They didn’t regret taking a chance on me.”

An untapped workforce

A part of Soteria’s mission is convincing employers in the Upstate and beyond to take similar chances. Blassingame, who helped champion H3209, says the determination he had after serving three and a half years of a 20-year sentence for drug charges will be reflected in the thousands of people released from prison every year.

Another champion of the bill was Greenville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carlos Phillips, who encouraged and won support from chambers of commerce across the state.

He said the law will “expand South Carolina’s workforce, make our state more economically competitive and continue our economic prosperity, while providing second-chance opportunities to thousands of our citizens.”

Phillips saw his home state of Kentucky benefit from a similar measure that removes offenses from criminal records. Applicants don’t have to admit to them, and employers won’t see the convictions if they run background checks.

“South Carolina must grow its workforce if our state is to experience continued economic growth and prosperity,” he said. “With unemployment in Greenville below 3 percent, and thousands of critical jobs left unfilled, it is imperative that we increase our labor pool.”

Supporters of the change point out that unemployment is one of the reasons for prison recidivism.

“Simple mistakes, including low-level, nonviolent offenses, should not result in lifelong sentences,” Phillips said. “People who have paid their debt to society deserve the second chance to take care of their families and pursue their career and professional goals, with no increased risk to our communities. Our communities will actually be better places to live when we grant people the opportunities they seek, and our business community will gain access to a new, untapped workforce.”

In a letter to the state House of Representatives, McMaster defended the veto, saying the public and employers have a right to know about criminal pasts.

“Second chances should be freely given when individuals have paid their debt to society; however, forgiveness should be informed by fact and should not be forced upon unwitting participants and prospective employers,” the governor’s letter reads. “Therefore, I am unwilling to sign legislation that would have the practical effect of erasing large categories of criminal records and telling employers what they can and cannot consider when making critical hiring decisions.”

McMaster acknowledged employment challenges faced by those who have been convicted and said he was willing to work with the General Assembly to pass laws to improve employment opportunities for individuals with non-violent, low-level drug convictions.

Clean slates to clean plates

Supporters of expungement legislation say they will continue working to win over the hearts of potential employers.

Fred Turner, an employee at Kitchen Sync, a restaurant in Greenville, said that just like Blassingame he had something to prove after leaving prison for what he insists is the final time.

“Everybody expects you to fail,” he said. “And a lot of people do go back in. Everybody expects you to go back in. I’m going to prove them wrong.”

Turner started as a dishwasher at Kitchen Sync and admits he tackled the job as if he had everything to prove and everything to lose. And his employer admits to some reluctance at first.

But Kevin Feeny, one of the restaurant’s co-owners, was familiar with Soteria’s work, and when he sat down to interview Turner he knew that Turner was someone he wanted on his staff. He also knew that Soteria brought a lot of support, including job training, financial literacy and drug testing. Besides that, Feeny was dealing with a challenge every restaurateur in town faces, a chronic shortage of workers.

On a recent evening in downtown Greenville, Soteria, Kitchen Sync, and Just Leadership USA, an advocacy group dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population, jointly organized a screening of the film Knife Skills, a documentary about reentry and second chances at a Cleveland cooking school that opened a fine-dining French restaurant staffed entirely by men and women who had been released from prison. The film was followed by a panel discussion.

At the time of the film screening, H3209 was a failed bill, vetoed by the governor. But Phillips thinks the now-enacted law is good for business, and Blassingame said he thinks it’s good for society, and that low unemployment rates mean opportunity for both employers and for his organization.

“It’s the right thing to do, as far as us helping. That’s what we’re called to do as community members—to reach down and help those who need it,” he said. “We all have benevolent hearts. … We need to give them a chance or we are going to continue to have problems.”

South Carolina Lawyers Weekly reporter David Donovan contributed to this story.



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