The Public Interest Law Center, in partnership with the Homeless Advocacy Project and Community Legal Services, filed an amicus brief in an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Daniel Harmon who was unlawfully denied unemployment benefits. The Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Board of Review’s ruling that denied Mr. Harmon’s unemployment benefits undermines efforts by state courts and others to keep people with criminal records connected to the workforce.
Mr. Harmon worked at Brown’s Shopright in December of 2013 when he was convicted of driving with a suspended license.
The court sentenced Mr. Harmon to 60-days imprisonment, but permitted the sentence to be served over the course of 30 weekends (over 8 months of weekend imprisonment) in order to permit Mr. Harmon to continue working. While still serving out his weekend sentence, he lost his job at Shoprite for no fault of his own. Mr. Harmon began looking for another job and filed for unemployment benefits. Even though his sentence was explicitly designed to permit him to continue to participate in the labor market, he was denied unemployment compensation on the basis that he was incarcerated and ostensibly unavailable for work. Mr. Harmon appealed that decision to the state Unemployment Compensation Board and then to the Commonwealth Court and is now petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear his case.
The Commonwealth Court’s ruling against Mr. Harmon undermines efforts by state courts to keep people with criminal records connected to the workforce. Judges use partial confinement sentences to enhance the ability of people like Mr. Harmon to stay involved in the workforce. By construing Mr. Harmon’s partial sentencing as a period of incarceration that renders him ineligible for benefits, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review created a disincentive for courts and defendants to accept innovative sentencing plans. This is because the denial of benefits Mr. Harmon would have received over the course of 60 days is much less economically damaging to him than the denial of benefits Mr. Harmon would receive over the course of the 30 weekends of imprisonment. It is well known that people with criminal records face a stigma that creates significant barriers in finding employment. This stigma affects a large swathe of the population of the United States; 70 million Americans have arrest or conviction records. Some economists estimate that the reduced income of formerly incarcerated individuals cost the U.S. over $80 billion in G.D.P.
We argue in the amicus brief that the court decision below misinterpreted the General Assembly’s intentions. Specific criminal offenses are supposed to correlate with specific restrictions; the blanket denial of unemployment benefits to anyone serving any kind of criminal sentence simply is not contemplated in the relevant state statues.