Bill would prevent local barriers to liquor, lottery employment for felons

JEFFERSON CITY -- A House bill seeking to prohibit local governments from barring individuals with felony convictions from working at businesses that sell liquor or lottery tickets could help combat worker shortages and recidivism rates, a retail advocacy group said.

The bill is a follow-up to language signed into law last year that eliminated a state prohibition barring applicants from working in alcohol or lottery ticket sales based solely on a prior felony conviction. Those provisions were passed as part of an omnibus public safety bill that included several sections on criminal justice reform.

This year's effort would expound on those changes by prohibiting local governments from enacting restrictions more stringent than the state's.

David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association, supported the bill. He said his association opposed the government regulating retail employment decisions and pointed to widespread shortages that those with felony convictions could easily fill.

"The business community should be able to make these decisions on its own," Overfelt told the (Jefferson City) News Tribune. "If it's something we can discuss with them, we might be able to hire more people and give them a chance they need. With so many job openings right now, I think we could find a lot of people that would qualify to fill those jobs while giving them the opportunity to turn their lives around. There's no reason for the state to get in the way of that."

Sponsor Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, told her colleagues during a public hearing before the House Crime Prevention Committee last week the bill would be a boon for business owners seeking new hires as well as those struggling to find employment, but noted it would not remove barriers that prohibit individuals with felony convictions from holding liquor or gaming licenses themselves.

"This is an employer freedom bill, a job creation and criminal justice reform bill all rolled into one," Toalson Reisch said. "This does preclude them from having a liquor license or a gaming license, a felon cannot hold those. They can strictly be an employee."

She said she had heard from two people in her district who had gained employment at grocery stores that sell liquor since the law changed last year with assistance from in2Action, a local organization that helps those recently released from prison find jobs.

The bill was also backed by the St. Louis-based Jewish Community Relations Council, with Deputy Director Cheryl Lynn Adelstein touting the removal of local barriers as a vital step toward reducing Missouri's recidivism rates.

"Reducing barriers to employment, is one of several tools to help reduce the recidivism rate in Missouri," she said in a written statement. "After release from incarceration, returning citizens must navigate a complex set of barriers which makes resuming any semblance of a normal life nearly impossible. Prior criminalization degrades the conditions that can aid in recovery, such as access to additional and mental health treatment programs, support networks, gainful employment and education.

"Finding paid employment can be nearly impossible due to the stigma of incarceration and the occupational licensure boards which are allowed to reject applicants with criminal histories, even when that history has no relevance to the job in question. This clarification will enable more returning citizens access to employment and reduce recidivism."

The committee took action on the bill Monday, giving it the green light with one vote in opposition. Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, voted against its passage, saying the bill would impede local governments' authority.

"I'm concerned about it taking away local control from our communities like Branson, there have been local control concerns over the past couple of years," Seitz said.

No other lawmakers or witnesses have spoken in opposition to the proposal during its time in committee.

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