*Shoshana Weissmann coauthored this op-ed.

It’s no secret that people with criminal histories often struggle to find work, even when their offenses were unrelated to the jobs they seek.

Proposed bipartisan legislation in Tennessee aims to improve ex-offenders’ chances of finding stable employment by amending the law requiring criminal background checks to obtain occupational licensing.

Two bills making their way through the Tennessee General Assembly, HB 2248 and SB 2465, provide that occupational licensing boards may only deny licenses based on past convictions that are directly related to the position someone is seeking, or for convictions for specific, serious felonies.

Dubbed “Fresh Start” legislation by sponsors, the proposals have the ability to lay the groundwork for successful re-entry of ex-offenders, and to make communities safer and local economies stronger.

Currently, Tennessee law allows licensing boards to prevent people convicted of felonies from becoming architects, engineers, cosmetologists, fire alarm system contractors, accountants and auctioneers.

Allowing boards to issue licenses by judging applicants on vague qualifiers breeds further inequity. Mandating undefined terms — like requiring an applicant have “good moral character” or restricting applicants for prior offenses of “moral turpitude” — makes the process ambiguous.

Boards can use these arbitrary catch-alls to deny licenses to ex-offenders who would otherwise be qualified to work in a licensed field.

“Last year there were over 13,000 felons released out of our jails and prisons in Tennessee.” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Memphis points out. “The most important thing we can do to ensure these folks don’t return is to provide them with a path to employment.”

He’s right: A study conducted by the Manhattan Institute found that ex-offenders who quickly found employment during re-entry were 20 percent less likely to re-offend than those who remained unemployed.

The likelihood of ex-offenders finding work would increase if licensing boards embraced occupational licensing reform. Passing legislation allowing more individuals with criminal histories to obtain occupational licensing would, in turn, ensure safer communities by reducing recidivism.

Aside from the community safety benefits, occupational licensing reform would improve Tennessee’s economy. Employment promotes self-sustainability and naturally engages ex-offenders in the economy by providing them with a means to earn and spend money.

Ostracizing ex-offenders and blocking opportunities through occupational licensing restrictions, in contrast, will not only hurt ex-offenders, but businesses and the general economy will also suffer.

Nationally, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the U.S. had 12 million to 14 million working-age ex-offenders. The resulting “reductions in employment cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.”

Tennessee’s Fresh Start bills can provide skilled ex-offenders with lasting employment, which will decrease recidivism and make our communities safer.

They will also help employ an entire group of fiscally-disenfranchised people, thereby aiding businesses and boosting economic stability in the state.

Image credit: FLUKY FLUKY

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