(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) today convened a hearing to examine how the federal government can harness the power of entrepreneurship to help returning citizens and those impacted by the justice system reenter their communities and build successful lives for themselves and their families.

Cardin is a leader in the fight in Congress to create a more fair and equitable criminal justice system—cosponsoring the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act last Congress, which was enacted in December 2018. The bill has already reduced the sentences of thousands of Americans convicted of certain low-level nonviolent crimes and it directs the Department of Justice to use evidence-based programs to help returning citizens rejoin their communities. In February 2021, Cardin re-introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which would end the permanent denial of voting rights for Americans with a criminal conviction. In the coming weeks, Cardin will reintroduce the NEW START Act—legislation to award grants to organizations, or partnerships between organizations, to provide business counseling and entrepreneurial development training to returning citizens as well as connect them with access to capital.

“It is critical that we recognize the significant role of entrepreneurship for those impacted by the justice system, as well as the inherent benefits for themselves and their communities,” Cardin said during his opening statement. “As entrepreneurs these individuals are less likely to recidivate and are more likely to employ other justice impacted individuals, which produces a positive multiplier effect.”

Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from prisons, and an additional 11 million cycle through local jails. More than 70 million Americans—nearly 1 in 3 adults—have a history of involvement with the criminal justice system, and studies show that these individuals are 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or a job offer after an interview.

One of the witnesses who provided testimony during the hearing, Coss Marte, illuminated these systemic barriers through his own experiences. He said, “As I came home from my prison sentence I was released with $40, a bus ticket and my prison net bag where I held my business plan and believed CONBODY was a great business idea. However, I was faced with many barriers such as insurance, real estate, capital, and policy regulations against hiring employees who have been formerly incarcerated. Even finding a job was difficult as I was denied over 100 times because of my past.”

Cardin has a history of working across the aisle to eliminate barriers to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) capital access programs. After the Trump administration initially blocked individuals with a criminal record from receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in April 2020, Cardin and Republican Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the administration urging them to reverse course. On June 4, 2020, Cardin and Senators Portman, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act to allow small business owners with criminal records to apply for PPP loans.

Cardin continued, “I believe that if we can work together, this is an area where we can change the lives of many and meaningfully empower entire communities. I recognize that this is not an easy task, but it is critical.

Click here to watch a video of the hearing. An MP4 of Cardin’s opening statement is available upon request.