Nearly one out of three Americans has a record in the criminal justice system and, as a result, faces a difficult road to becoming employed. Adding to their woes is the fact that many jobs — including interior designer, barber, pest control applicator and fire alarm installer— require some kind of occupational license.

Unfortunately, many states still deny licenses for individuals with criminal convictions, even when those convictions are decades old or relatively minor. The good news? Several states and cities across the country are poised to become leaders in reforming the law.

The number of jobs requiring occupational licenses has ballooned in the last 50 years. Occupational licensing has expanded from covering five percent of the workforce in the 1950s to 30 percent today. In recent years, occupational licenses have come under fire for creating unnecessary barriers to work without any measurable gains in safety or quality of services provided to the public.

Counter to what many believe, locking released individuals out of job opportunities is bad policy — it hurts returning citizens, our economy and public safety. Employment upon release is one of the key indicators in predicting whether individuals will commit another crime, and the sooner ex-offenders are employed, the less likely they will be to commit future crimes. States that consider license applications from returning citizens are demonstrably safer. In states willing to consider applications from ex-felons, the recidivism rate declined by 4.2 percent; in the 29 states where licensing boards outright reject applications from ex-felons, the recidivism rate actually rose by 9.4 percent.

Other states — such as Georgia, Illinois and Kentucky — have already passed measures to limit the consideration of criminal records in the licensing process. In Illinois, for instance, State Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. sponsored a law last year that forbade the state licensing department from disqualifying potential funeral directors, roofers, barbers, cosmetologists, hair braiders and nail technicians solely because of a criminal conviction — unless the conviction directly relates to the job. 

Similarly, the D.C. Committee is currently considering an amendment to permit licensing boards to consider only convictions directly related to the job. The Removing Barriers to Occupational Licenses Amendment Act Of 2017 would also give the returning citizen an opportunity to provide mitigating evidence.

The current language in D.C. guiding licensing boards is vague, denying any applicant whose offense “bears directly on the fitness of the person to be licensed.” As Councilman Charles Allen, one of the sponsors of the bill, pointed out at the Nov. 28 committee hearing that the law provides “no explanation of what fitness means, or how it should be determined.” Society would be better served with a narrowly tailored law that provides clarity to applicants and licensing boards alike.

Not surprisingly, professional associations are uncomfortable with licensing reforms. The Boards of Chiropractic, Medicine, Nursing, Respiratory Care and Dentistry all opposed the D.C. bill. The main argument supplied was that, without a review of an individual’s entire record, public safety would be harmed.

However, the proposed amendment would not prevent licensing boards from considering convictions directly relevant to the occupation in question. None of the professional associations opposed to the bill explained why considering irrelevant information would protect the public. 

Additionally, all of the professional associations argued that very few applicants, even those who have had contact with the criminal justice system, are denied licenses. However, many individuals with criminal records do not even apply for licensure because they believe their past conviction is an immediate disqualification. This is why a key component of a law removing barriers to licensing should be education and publication — provisions that are not currently contained in the bill’s language.

The current laws are not conducive to public safety and deny returning citizens the dignity of work — the pride in making a living and providing for their family. Preventing a large swath of individuals from obtaining occupational licenses simply because of prior contact with the criminal justice system is bad policy. Those who have paid their debts to society deserve at least a fighting chance to obtain occupational licenses.

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