Sponsored by Democratic and Republican commissioners, the Fair Chance to Serve ordinance takes away an important barrier for Shelby County residents with criminal records who want to serve on volunteer commissions and boards.

Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners has approved an ordinance that removes questions about criminal histories from most applications to join volunteer boards and commissions.

Sponsored by Democratic and Republican commissioners, the Fair Chance to Serve ordinance takes away an important barrier for Shelby County residents with criminal records who want to serve on volunteer commissions and boards.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said the ordinance can “expand the opportunity for ex-offenders to reintegrate back into society.”

“Someone who has made a mistake and has a record should not be denied or discouraged from volunteering to serve their community,” Harris said. “When barriers to civic engagement and volunteer service are removed, we all benefit.”

Democrat Van Turner Jr. and Republican Mick Wright sponsored the ordinance. 

“Candidates who have been through the justice system have paid their debt to society and have been thinking about ways to turn their lives around,” Wright said. “They will bring different perspectives and expertise to serve our communities.”

Turner, who also is president of the Memphis Branch NAACP, said, “I believe eliminating the criminal background check for individuals seeking membership on volunteer boards is absolutely the right thing to do. We want to make sure that we allow ex-offenders every opportunity to transition back into society, and this new law facilitates that process.”

In 2020, a “Ban the Box” ordinance supported by Harris and approved by the commission removed questions about arrests and convictions on county government job applications.

(This story reflects a report by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, a contributor to The New Tri-State Defender.)