*Shoshana Weissmann coauthored this piece.
Overreaching licensing regimes that target those with criminal history records are out of step with conservative principles. They make us less safe, prevent economic growth, and, most importantly, they are immoral.
These are just a few examples of a growing number of unnecessary occupational licenses. Indeed, one in every four Americans needs a government license just to do his or her job. In the 1950s, that number was closer to one in 20.
It makes sense that some individuals, including some with certain criminal histories, should be banned from jobs where strong public safety concerns are raised (like doctors responsible for medical care or demolition experts who have access to explosives). But too many licenses have nothing to do with protecting consumers. Worse yet, these laws might actually be making us less safe.
This is because licensing laws often prohibit certain individuals from obtaining licenses at all. If you have a felony background, for instance, the state of Tennessee bars you from becoming an interior designer or a cosmetologist. In California, 4,000 inmate firefighters helped battle last year’s wildfires. After their release, however, those same people would almost certainly be denied that same job simply because of their backgrounds.
The bottom line is that when people who have committed crimes cannot find jobs once they’re released, they are more likely to commit more crimes. This not only hurts those individuals, it puts further pressure on taxpayers and jeopardizes public safety. Doing away with these unnecessary licensing requirements would help former offenders obtain honest employment, which not only complies with conservative principles, it reduces recidivism and keeps everyone safer.
Conservatism is about law and order and limited government. Accordingly, the government should focus on keeping people safe – not keeping people out of jobs simply because of a criminal past. Once they have served their time, these individuals need to be reintegrated into society in the fastest and safest way possible.
Moreover, conservatives have long believed that hard work is the best way to capture the American dream — that through personal responsibility and drive, everyone can be successful and thrive. This is why the 2016 Republican platform (which mentioned the word “job” 51 times) proclaimed that “all Americans deserve the opportunity to pursue their American dream free from discrimination.”
“All Americans,” however, cannot refer to only those with a squeaky clean past. Of the 2.3 million people who are currently in some type of custody, 95 percent will be released back into our communities. However, most who leave custodial confinement enter a world of economic confinement, where nearly 60 percent are unemployed a year after they serve their time. This is because overly strict and often arbitrary licensing requirements prohibit people from obtaining gainful employment. Those lucky few who do find a job are paid an average of 40 percent less than those with no criminal history. As a result, many of these individuals find themselves unnecessarily and involuntarily dependent on welfare programs for survival.
While “conservative” and “Christian” are not necessarily synonymous, it is true that many on the right acquire their moral compass from Judeo-Christian teachings. Christians are compelled by their faith to show mercy and forgiveness, even toward those who have transgressed. This is why Jesus defended both Mary Magdalene and the penitent thief crucified next to him. Further, Christ himself steadfastly rejected the “eye for an eye” model promoted in Exodus, instead encouraging his followers to “turn the other cheek.” It is therefore hard to believe that Christ would support a system that strips people of the opportunity to redeem themselves through future economic opportunity and good works.
Simply put, continuing to punish those who have repented and paid for their mistakes is a fundamental violation of both Christian and conservative principles. For this reason, the reform of unnecessary licensing regimes that in effect sentence people to a life of perpetual poverty, unnecessarily undermine public safety, and force continued dependence on the government for basic needs should be a top priority for the current administration.