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Dear Decaturish – Decatur should allow people with criminal records to serve alcohol

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Dear Decaturish – Decatur should allow people with criminal records to serve alcohol

Decatur City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Decaturish gave the city of Decatur an opportunity to respond to this letter, but the city hasn’t responded yet. This post will be updated when a response is received.

Dear Decaturish,

Decatur is a city known for progressive actions. We had “Black Lives Matter” written on the street in front of our high school, and after years of work the confederate monument in front of the old courthouse came down. We also saw Beacon Hill Middle School renamed to honor a historic Black neighborhood and even the Mary Gay house will have a name renewal—and thank god for it.

This has all been important and necessary work, but it’s also surface-level. There is a very basic step forward our city could make when it comes to being more equitable, and it’s as simple as letting folks with criminal convictions serve someone a beer on a Friday night at one of our amazing dining establishments. Our current laws state that:

In no event shall any alcoholic beverage server permit be granted to any persons who have been convicted under any federal, state, or local law or have pleaded guilty or entered a plea of nolo contendere to any crime, misdemeanor, or felony involving moral turpitude, lottery, or illegal possession or sale of narcotics or liquors within a period of five years immediately prior to the filing of such application, nor shall any person sell or dispense alcoholic beverages.

The absurdity of this law shouldn’t be lost on you here. Felony convictions are bad enough, but any crime or misdemeanor!? I mean, let’s face it, I’m biased, and I won’t pretend I’m not. I’m the Head of Development for ConConnect, an Atlanta-based tech company that is ensuring a more equitable future for the formerly incarcerated. It’s not lost on me that our founder, a felon himself, who has managed to raise a million-plus dollars in funding, couldn’t serve a beer in the city of Decatur even if he wanted to.

Our reality is that 80 million people in this country have a criminal record. That’s nearly one-quarter of the population! Black Americans are six times more likely to be convicted of a felony than their white counterparts, and add that to the fact that the unemployment rate is nearly 27% for the formerly incarcerated. The city of Decatur has a chance to do its part to reverse this narrative, all while helping to ensure our local businesses are fully staffed with good employees who are part of a loyal and dedicated workforce. The longer someone is unemployed once released from prison, the higher the risk of recidivism. As a community, we can reduce that risk with one simple law change.

We can be a community willing to create the change needed for our residents and neighbors to thrive. Allowing these folks to have access to these jobs builds a more diverse, intentional community. And it’s not just me who thinks so.

Pat Pascarella, owner of the White Bull (Porchetta Group) says, “The restaurant industry/hospitality industry is composed of rejects, ex-cons, and people just looking for a home. This law pulls the cord on an industry in that so many people have found refuge in. Whether you like it or not, this is the truth, and the outcome will be far worse than giving a liquor serving permit to an ex-con. My restaurant group started in Decatur and now has grown to four locations in and around Atlanta and we always welcome the unwelcome. The amount of times I’ve hired formerly incarcerated or homeless people for them to end up turning into some of our greatest employees is mind-boggling. I highly suggest that you reconsider your law, so we can solve the issues around the understaffed hospitality industry.”

Former “Top Chef” winner Kevin Gillespie, who owns Revival (Red Beard Restaurants) here in Decatur and was a James Beard Award finalist in 2022, agrees.

“When we opened Revival eight years ago, three of the seven kitchen staff members were folks who had found themselves, at some point in their life, incarcerated,” he says. “We welcomed them into our family of restaurants with open arms and offered them an opportunity to earn a living and create a better life for themselves and their families. Eight years later many folks have come and gone, but those three remain with us, all having made their way into management and all thriving. This didn’t happen by mistake. It happened because they were treated with equality and without discrimination, two values Decatur has openly advocated for.”

With restaurant owners on board and residents wanting the change, it’s time that Decatur aligns its laws with its values. Let’s make the changes that truly affect those long-term outcomes and change criminal conviction laws in the city of Decatur. We can do this by insisting our city council members rescind this law – let’s give those with convictions a chance at a thriving life.

— Hannah Olan, Head of Business Development at ConConnect

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