Gov. Bill Lee talks to media after his remarks during a forum aimed at helping ex-offenders return to the workforce. The forum was held Tuesday at The University of Memphis, and also featured remarks from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

It’s no secret that a major key to Memphis’ economic revival will be reducing unemployment – specifically, among those with felony convictions. And Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is putting his signature where his speech is.

On Tuesday, after participating in a forum aimed at de-stigmatizing the idea of hiring an ex-offender, Lee signed a bill that will waive the fee offenders must pay when applying for their records to be expunged.

An expunged record means that ex-offenders don’t have to “check the box” saying they’ve been convicted of a felony. Otherwise, ex-offenders are legally required to disclose their status – which almost immediately disqualifies them for employment in the minds of many prospective employers.

“Part of criminal justice reform, being tough on crime and smart on crime is finding ways for those who will be coming back to find meaningful employment,” Lee said. “And that’s what today’s about.”

Lee was just one of the high-level government officials on hand for “How to Help Your Business and Community: A Forum Connecting Memphis Area Businesses with Sources of Skilled, Qualified Employees Who Are Ex-Offenders,” which was held Tuesday morning at The University of Memphis.

In addition to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Tennessee Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, the forum allowed more than 400 attendees to hear from employers who have hired ex-offenders, agencies who help them as well as ex-offenders themselves.

The event was hosted by the Tennessee Department of Correction, The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, The UofM Public Safety Institute and The Shelby County Crime Commission.

With a disproportionate ratio of African Americans in the state corrections system, and with Memphis’ majority African-American population, efforts to remove barriers to re-entry would have a major impact in a city like Memphis, Lee said.

“We know that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system,” Lee said in response to a TSD question. “We incarcerate a disproportionate share of African Americans. So anything we do to improve the process of criminal justice, to have a system that actually lives up to its name, then that is going to impact the African-American community.”