The way Jerry Blassingame sees it, the S.C. General Assembly created opportunities for business operators as well as men and women leaving prison with a decisive message to the governor on June 27.
The Legislature voted — by 108-1 in the House and 35-5 in the Senate — to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a bill to allow low-level felonies to be removed from the records of certain nonviolent offenders. The expungement bill had widespread support among the state’s business leaders and social reform leaders.
Most felonies that are eligible for expungement are drug convictions for first-offense simple possession or intent to distribute, and nonviolent crimes committed under the age of 25.
Supporters like Blassingame, executive director of Greenville-based Soteria Community Development Corp., think H. 3209 will put more people in the labor pool while eliminating a major obstacle to employment for people who have been convicted of crimes.
Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties had a combined 24,694 open jobs in July, according to numbers from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
“Our economy is producing an incredible amount of jobs,” said Ian Scott, senior vice president of advocacy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody in the region has an opportunity to be gainfully employed because of the economy, and we think that opportunity should extend to everyone, including those who were formerly incarcerated.”
Blassingame spends much of his organization’s energy making sure people who are 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 be good employees. First, though, they need a chance. Blassingame helps create those chances today; 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.
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.”
A key focus of his ministry and Soteria is to help men and women who have been incarcerated transition to a life that others take for granted. A part of that mission is persuading employers to take a chance on them.
Blassingame thinks low unemployment rates mean opportunity for employers and his organization. He says the determination he had after serving 3 1/2 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 H. 3209 is Greenville Chamber President and CEO Carlos Phillips, who encouraged and won support from chambers of commerce across the state, including the Charleston Metro Chamber.
Phillips 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 certain offenses from criminal records. Applicants don’t have to admit to it and employers won’t see the crime if they run background checks.
Scott, of the Charleston Metro Chamber, said “With unemployment running below 4% in the Charleston metro region, we need every single person who’s willing and able and ready to go take a job in the workforce and earning at their highest potential. And there’s a lot of potential out there, so we see this as an opportunity to expand the workforce pool by a significant margin, not just in Charleston, but statewide.”
Scott said he didn’t know how many people would be eligible to have felonies removed from their records, but he estimated it could be hundreds of thousands.
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, I might add. 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.”
Staff writer Patrick Hoff contributed to this report.