But the new certificate comes only after some procedural hurdles and, of course, a fee.
The law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in a General Assembly not known for its cooperation. It was sponsored by two Shelby County lawmakers from very different districts — a white Republican representing the largely middle class-to-wealthy constituents in eastern Shelby County and a black Democrat elected from the the much less affluent, southwest part of Memphis.
Primary sponsors State Senator Brian Kelsey (R) and State Representative Karen Camper (D) say they crafted the bill to help convicted felons find work in Tennessee.
The Certificate of Employability Act became law on July 1, 2014. The legislation is an attempt to give those who have criminal convictions the opportunity to obtain a certificate that provides protections for potential employers. The hope is that a vetted and comprehensive certification process will encourage employers to take a chance on hiring those with criminal convictions and in doing so improve overall community safety by providing more people a path to employment and a more productive life.
The law was hailed by the editorial staff of the Commercial Appeal recently as “one of the more important pieces of legislation to come out of the General Assembly.”
Here’s how it works — if a petitioner is granted the certificate by a judge, he or she can present the certificate to a potential employer. The certificate provides the employer with protection against claims of negligent hiring practices related to the applicant’s criminal background. The certificate, of course, does not guarantee hiring and does not prevent an employer from examining the applicant’s criminal record. It simply provides the employer some legal protection, as well as the knowledge that the district attorney’s office and a judge have reviewed an individual’s background and references and determined that her or she does not pose a public safety risk.
This narrow law represents a slight shift in Tennessee policy toward the national, bi-partisan movement for larger criminal justice reform. Just this week, U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R) and Cory Booker (D) jointly proposed legislation for a wholesale “overhaul” of the criminal justice system, which includes a push for expungement of non-violent criminal charges.
Hopefully, this act will have a broader reach than Tennessee’s expungement law which was passed in 2012. The expungement legislation, also sponsored by Rep. Camper, sought to wipe clean the criminal records of individuals convicted of certain crimes. But given that the law only applied to those with one non-violent felony or misdemeanor and with no other criminal convictions in the last five years, the number of those who actually qualify is small. The law also came with a hefty $350 filing fee, which was inexplicably raised to $450 by the General Assembly this past session.
While this new legislation holds promise, it falls well short of what most people will need.
Like the expungement act, the Employee Certificate Act also includes a financial component. A fee is not specified in the law, but a petitioner will be required to pay a filing fee. In Shelby County, that fee is generally in the $150 range.
Most damaging, however, is that the application process is long and unwieldy and will most likely require an attorney. The petitioner will need to prepare a petition, pay a filing fee, solicit personal references, and appear before a court. Before any hearing, however, the district attorney general and the appropriate clerk’s office must conduct their own verifications and notify any victims involved in the original crime(s). These are all time-consuming and complex tasks, and the awarding of the Certificate of Employability is ultimately a judge’s decision.
Certificate in hand, it is then up to the successful petitioner to find an employer willing to take a chance on her based on this new piece of court-issued paper, and that is no small task itself.