Washington DC (May 31) – Across the United States, burdensome occupational licensing laws keep many qualified and hardworking Americans from earning a living. Not only do these laws hurt the economy and offer no noticeable gains in safety or quality, but many also contain vague language that allows licensing boards to deny otherwise qualified people. More specifically, many occupational licensing laws condition employment on “good moral character,” but how exactly one demonstrates such a quality is entirely undefined. This vague language is especially harmful to individuals with a criminal history.

In a new policy paper, R Street Justice Policy Associate Jonathan Haggerty examines the history of these provisions, their prevalence in licensing laws, examples and judicial definitions, their potential constitutional implications and their ramifications for public safety. In addition, the author proposes several models for reform.

The paper argues that not only do these practices harm the formerly incarcerated and fail to increase public safety, recent research has shown that they may make communities less safe by increasing the odds that a person will return to a life of crime . Indeed, where the “good moral character” provision is particularly ill-defined, boards have been able to use it to block those with a criminal history from obtaining a work license – no matter what the nature of the offense may have been.

The author argues that in order to avoid these constitutionally dubious laws, policymakers should eliminate moral character requirements and replace them with individualized assessment s, which allow boards to consider past offenses, but only if they relate to the nature of the job: “[m]oral character laws are [. . .] damaging to public safety and serve as extrajudicial penalties on justice-involved persons that violate norms of fairness. Policymakers around the country should look to states that are reforming their licensing statutes and removing good moral character requirements.”

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