Can You Ever Pay a Debt to Society? DPS Doesn’t Think So…

texas dlrMaybe it’s really old school, but people used to say “he paid his debt to society” when someone was released from jail or even prison. The idea was that the incarceration was the debt he owed for his transgression against the rules; his subsequent discharge was the release from that debt. Today, it seems no debt is actually discharged. There is no real second chance for those released from prison. If a sentence is held against a person forever and always, is a person’s debt to society really ever paid in full and discharged?

Recently, Eric Dexheimer, an investigative reporter for Austin’s American-Statesman, uncovered records showing the Texas Department of Public Safety routinely denies job licenses for applicants with minor offenses in their past. Many jobs in Texas (even non-government jobs) require some sort of license: barbers, bingo callers and workers, tow truck drivers, air conditioning contractors, pawnbrokers, and even athletic trainers, to name just a few.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Under Texas law, some criminal convictions become an automatic ban to getting or keeping a particular state required license. However, in other cases, the Texas Department of Public Safety, one of the agencies tasked with approving or denying certain applications, has discretion over whether or not to issue the license. Yet, DPS rarely exercises that discretion and instead simply denies licensing.

The Texas Occupations Code sets general rules for the licensing of plumbers, cosmetologists, boxing promoters, pawn shop owners, air-conditioning contractors and so many more. Depending upon the type and severity of the conviction, licensing may be denied or suspended. This leaves these folks out of work and unable to meet their financial obligations.

Take the case of Christopher Owen:

According to court records, the Tarrant County man “had gone from owning his own oil and gas company to becoming homeless. His home was destroyed by fire, he learned that his wife was having an affair and they divorced, and his mother died.”

On Nov. 23, 2014, cold and wet, Owen was rummaging through a Goodwill donation drop-off trailer when his lousy streak continued, records show. He was spotted and arrested for burglary of a vehicle for taking a pair of socks. The value of his theft — his only criminal record — was less than $5.

Owen’s short stay in jail appeared to be a pivotal point. He turned his life around, records show, finding work with a security company whose owner described him as “honest, productive and valuable to the company.”

Yet late last year when he applied for a state license to sell alarm systems for the security company, the Texas Department of Public Safety rejected his application, citing the hosiery heist.

Experts agree that maintaining gainful employment is crucial to reintegration into society after “serving a debt”; yet, DPS rejects these types of licenses.

In yet another example, take Krystal Turner’s case:

The DPS was equally unsympathetic to Krystal Turner, who in late 2011 was homeless when she ducked into an abandoned house near the University of Texas. The next morning she was arrested for criminal trespass. She was sentenced to 15 days in Travis County Jail.

Still homeless after her release, Turner said she camped along the Colorado River. She later began house-sitting and, in 2013, finally found permanent housing through her church.

She soon found a job at a local lube garage. “When my sister played with Barbie, I always played with her car,” she said. “I was seriously born to work on cars.”

In November 2015, Turner was promoted to store manager at another shop, supervising four employees and managing the outlet’s cash and credit transactions. She started attending Austin Community College classes. Court records show she is “a straight-A student, is in the ACC honors program, and has been nominated for a national scholars program.”

Turner said she has a year and a half until she earns her Master Automotive Service Excellence certification. She serves on a campus ministry.

“Her honesty and work ethics are impeccable,” her boss said.

Yet when Turner applied for her state vehicle inspector’s certificate because the garage was having trouble hiring enough inspectors to keep up with demand, the DPS denied her, citing the trespassing conviction.

What’s even sadder is that DPS is basically the only and final authority for these decisions. Despite an appeal process, DPS remains the final authority. Applicants can appeal the denial of a license to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, but the administrative judge is only permitted to make a recommendation to DPS should it disagree with the denial. DPS is free to accept or reject the judge’s recommendation to issue a license.

DPS cites “public safety” as its reason for denying licenses. But what about the cases, like those cited, that involve minor offenses and true rehabilitation? Why wouldn’t we want citizens back at work and contributing to their families and society? Denying skilled jobs can leave the individual without a means to support himself or his family. He becomes a drain on society rather than a contributing member. And, the job loss is only the tip of the iceberg to collateral consequences.

With these types of rules and lack of discretion, it is nearly impossible for any one to actually pay their debt to society and reintegrate as a productive member and good citizen. It’s time to reform our system. It’s time to allow good citizens to rejoin society, especially after minor offenses.