Sensible Criminal Justice Reforms Could Net Significant Social and Fiscal Returns

The criminal justice system is a complex area of policy development, where the Left and the Right often find themselves standing on surprisingly common ground.  Considering public safety is generally the most expensive line item in government, (Maricopa County spends 53 percent of its $2.49 billion budget on criminal justice and public safety,) small improvements to the system could have large social and fiscal returns.

There are three general areas of public policy that affect the system: prevention, intervention, and redemption.

The main prerogative of redemption policies is reentry into society after an offender has served their sentence and paid their restitution.  In other words – reducing the risk of recidivism.  A major part of this equation is legal and gainful employment.

After all, it’s often claimed that a job, is the best alternative to a life of crime.

Ex-offenders face many obstacles to legitimate employment: meager skills, reticent employers, and regulatory burdens that present high costs and high barriers to entry, just to name a few.

Teach Them to be Something Other Than a Criminal

When evaluating recidivism rates, it is clear that the first three years after a convict is released are critical.  That is why offering robust job training programs during and after their sentence is crucial to successful reentry.

This should be more than punching license plates.  Teaching a convict new tools and more sophisticated skills give him opportunities to earn a better living than what a life of crime provides.  Exposure to new thought processes and higher education is also more transformative to the individual and has better long-term prospects than simple existence and survival.

Over the last couple of years, Arizona has been making strides at working with the private sector to implement job training programs at our correctional facilities to give convicts nearing release an opportunity to train and acquire a job. Lawmakers need to take a closer look at the efficacy of these programs and explore ways to accelerate their adoption throughout the state.

Remove Regulatory Barriers to Job Opportunities

Though developing vocational programs and opportunities for convicts is important, their effectiveness will be limited without the removal of regulatory barriers preventing entry into the job market after release.

Occupational licensing restrictions is one area that is in need of reform.  A year ago, ASU economist Stephen Slivinski wrote a comprehensive study on the correlations between occupational licensing and recidivism. In his study, Turning Shackles into Bootstraps, he found states with “the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9 percent.”

One reason is that the licensing fees and costly time requirements simply price many job opportunities out of reach for most ex-felons. Complicating matters further is that occupational licenses are overseen by boards and commissions that have crafted overly broad “good moral character” requirements that effectively prohibit ex-felons from working in dozens of fields. Policymakers should take a closer look at the costs and unnecessary license restrictions that are preventing convicts from getting a job.

Another regulatory obstacle preventing convicts from finding work is their inability to obtain a driver’s license due to court ordered fines and penalties. Though intended to coerce payment of the fines, the practical effect is that convicts are prohibited from driving until all fines are paid, yet they need to drive in order to work. It is a catch-22 that must be fixed.

If it isn’t a Life Sentence, it Shouldn’t be a Life Sentence

For good reason, many employers feel uneasy about hiring a person with a record.  Often when there are two qualified applicants for a position side-by-side, if one has a record and the other does not, the employer will opt for the applicant who based upon the available evidence poses lesser liability for the business.

One idea being proposed to address this issue is a concept called “ban the box,” which would limit an employer’s ability to inquire about past felony convictions on an application and typically delays it until after the in-person interview.  Currently more than a dozen states have adopted this approach, nine of which directly prohibit private employers from asking about prior felonies on job applications. Additionally, Governor Ducey recently enacted a similar program for hiring state employees.

Though well-intentioned and potentially a good idea for state government, “ban the box” would result in unintended consequences if deployed in the private sector.  Not only is it a clunky mechanism to try to engineer a certain outcome, some studies have shown it actually harms minorities without a criminal background.  It is very likely that businesses would simply make other assumptions and implement alternative hiring tactics to sidestep the prohibition in the vacuum of information.

A possible alternative to ‘ban the box’ that is less intrusive and could accomplish the same goal would be to provide a narrow segment of ex-offenders (that meet certain criteria) an opportunity to seal their records.  For example, if non-violent offenders comply with all court ordered sentencing, treatment, and do not recidivate over a substantial period of time (five to seven years), they could be allowed the opportunity to seal their records.

If a main premise of our justice system is the punishment should fit the crime, then once a person has served their sentence, their payment to society is complete.  Select sealing of records strikes a balance between preserving public safety, allowing for employer discretion, while giving a low-risk population of ex-offenders a second chance at a clean slate.

Arizona, like every other state, is faced with complex and costly policy decisions when it comes to criminal justice.  The time has passed culturally when it was acceptable to simply punish people and hope for the best.  As a society we have recognized that we can do more.  That everyone is better served by a compassionate system that holds individuals accountable while addressing root problems holistically.

Focused and strategic efforts to bring persons with a record into the workforce is significant.  After all, honest work is more than a job; it’s self-sufficiency, it’s a source of pride, and it’s a future.

Maricopa Association of Governments Agrees: Cities Should Reform Home-Based Business Laws

The Free Enterprise Club and The Goldwater Institute have been investigating cases around Arizona of home-based businesses (HBB) being harassed or shut down by local government.

But this isn’t a new issue.  In fact, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), an organization comprised of member-cities in Maricopa County, issued a comprehensive study on the home-based business landscape.

Their conclusion?  Home-based business regulatory reform is long overdue.

According to the MAG Study issued in 2003, almost every city in Maricopa County has overly burdensome ordinances that unnecessarily restrict home-based employment. The study urged cities to reconsider their regulatory regime in order to “create a positive environment that assures their [home based businesses] future operation and place within the community.”

A major factor in MAGs conclusion in relaxing home-based business regulations was their observation of evolving work trends in the US, finding that over 3.4 million workers (and growing) worked from home, of which over half being self-employed home-based business owners.

Most notable from that figure is that only 19% of these home-based businesses were in the production, operations or fabrication sectors.  Most HBBs were in the managerial or professional (41.6%), technical, sales and admin support (24.6%), and service occupations (14.9%). In other words, most home-based businesses in today’s economy are service occupations that can operate without any disruption in a residential neighborhood.  Businesses that create a great deal of noise and exhaust are no longer the typical home-based business.

Yet the zoning ordinances governing HBBs remain stuck in the post-industrial economy of the 1950s. One area highlighted by MAG for reform was how much of a house may be used for a home-based business.  According to the report, five cities restrict the use to 25 percent of the gross space – Glendale sets a maximum of 5% of the living area.  How would a city even propose they enforce this regulation?  Considering that it is already required that a home-based business be a secondary use of the property, all logical methods of enforcement would result in a massive invasion of privacy.

Other arbitrary and unenforceable restrictions include limits on using a garage or accessory space, hours of operation, storing products or selling any goods on premises.

Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since the study was published 14 years ago.  Though some cities such as Phoenix and Maricopa County have reformed their HBB regulations, other cities have become more restrictive.

Take for instance the City of Chandler: a decade ago the city did not restrict homeowners from operating their business from their garage, or limit their hours of operation.  Now the same city that desires to be the tech hub of Arizona currently prohibits a business from working from their garage, an irony highlighted by how many antelope tech firms started their ventures from a home garage.  Tolleson went from having very few restriction to allowing no home businesses to be permitted by right.  Every home occupation requires the issuance of a special Use Permit – a process that is unpredictable and costs thousands in time and money.

Over a decade ago MAG identified HBB reform as “the next wave of necessary changes in municipal zoning” and that Arizona communities should follow the lead of other states and jurisdictions enacting reform. Instead, the situation has only grown worse. Considering only a couple cities have found the motivation to heed the advice of MAG, the time is ripe for the state to do more to create simplicity, uniformity, and flexibility for home-based businesses in Arizona.

Home Based Business Owners Share Regulatory Nightmares

A transforming economy, technological innovation and changes in the workplace have led to an explosion of home based businesses in Arizona. The growth in home based businesses (HBB) and telecommuting has been so pronounced that it is now estimated that 24% of workers are now doing a portion of their job at home.

However, due to an unresponsive and archaic regulatory system that has not responded to this changing work culture, many of these fledgling enterprises have been stifled or extinguished altogether.  In many jurisdictions, the patchwork of HBB regulations have created an inconsistent, arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive home-based business environment. For many of these businesses, compliance becomes a fight against City Hall that is a losing proposition for the politically unconnected.

Over the last several months, the Free Enterprise Club and the Goldwater Institute have unearthed several home-based business regulatory disasters.  These stories have illuminated the rampant over-regulation of the practice and the need for reform.

Many of these homeowners have agreed to share their stories in the hopes that what happened to them won’t occur to another unsuspecting HBB in Arizona.

Pinal County Regulations Sink Home Swim Lessons.

For over 10 years Suzy Irwin and her husband taught swim lessons to small children in San Tan Valley.  The Irwins live in a community in unincorporated Pinal County, where the proximity to services are few and the nearest swim school is a 30-minute drive away.  One summer day in 2013 the Irwins received a knock on her front door—it was a code compliance officer from the county.

After inquiring about the swimming lessons being taught at the Irwin’s home, the county employee informed Suzy’s husband Sean that they did not have the proper “home occupation license” and would need to cease operations immediately.

Suzy believed she had always followed the County’s regulations.  After all, the County told Suzy when she moved into the neighborhood in 2003 that there was no permit for home based businesses.  Additionally, County environmental services and local fire services provider did annual routine inspections of their pool and backyard.  For the past ten years Suzy was proactive in making sure public health and safety standards were met, her business was well insured, and she had all the latest certifications.  So of course, her first inclination was to simply come into compliance by filling out some paperwork, paying the $50 fee, and acquiring the necessary license.

If only it had been so easy.

Shortly after applying for the home occupation license, the county came back proclaiming she did not qualify for this type of license because she taught more than 5 children per day, and would instead need to file for a special use permit (SUP) for $500.  This came with an additional $200 “concept review” fee which included a meeting to determine her prospects for the permit ever being granted.

In Spring of 2014, Suzy drafted a lengthy narrative, drew a site plan, and filled out the rest of the application.  They were required to notify their neighbors located within 1,200 feet of their home and host them at a neighborhood meeting.  They were even required to install a bright yellow 4X8 sign (costing $850) in their front yard to provide notice of their upcoming planning & zoning hearing.

The Irwins received an outpouring of support from their neighbors – many of whom were customers and entrusted their own children’s safety to Suzy and her husband.  All who attended their neighborhood meeting signed a petition in support of them being allowed to continue their business.  Finally, after a lengthy process that already cost the Irwins nearly a year, their application was scheduled for a hearing at the County’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

On July 17, 2014 the Irwins went to their hearing, feeling confident that they would finally receive their approvals and be granted the Special Use Permit. That’s when it all came crashing down.

At the hearing, the County’s new in-house counsel, Mark Langlitz, blindsided county staff and the Irwin’s by informing the commissioners that he did not believe they qualified for a SUP at all. Additionally, Mr. Langlitz stated that the Irwin’s HBB activity was illegal and they were wrongfully using the SUP process as a vehicle for “spot zoning.”

The only path to compliance, according to Mr. Langlitz, would be an entirely different process – to rezone their home to commercial – which would never be allowed.  When pressed further on this opinion and why teaching swimming classes would not be allowed at the Irwin’s, the attorney defended his opinion by proclaiming that any for-profit business must be conducted at a commercially zoned property.

After hearing this dubious legal opinion from Mr. Langlitz, the commission voted 10-2 to refer the case to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation to deny their permit.

After an unpredictable roller coaster that cost them in time and money, the Irwin’s had no choice but to accept the verdict and move on. Suzy withdrew their application with the county, sidelining 35 years of combined experience in critical water safety training for children in the community.

Arizona is Ripe for Wide-Sweeping Home-Based Business Reform

Though most home-based businesses are small enterprises; in aggregate the thousands of home-based businesses make up roughly 50 percent of all Arizona small businesses.  We should have a regulatory culture that reflects both our value for their economic contributions as well as respect for their rights to earn an honest living for themselves and their families.

The Irwin’s story is indicative of an all-too-common challenge home-based businesses face.  It also demonstrates the urgency of greater reform.

Arizona has been a trailblazer in creating a regulatory environment primed for businesses to expand in the State; and as a result, businesses from California have flocked here.  Now is the time to send the same message to our home-grown entrepreneurs.