Like many Americans, Amanda Spillane and Courtney Haveman simply wanted a fresh start. A struggle with mental health led Spillane to abuse drugs and make mistakes that ultimately landed her in prison. Haveman’s bout with alcoholism led to several misdemeanors.

Both women have since worked hard to turn their lives around. They attended cosmetology school for a total of 18 months between them, and each spent more than $6,000 on tuition. Yet, after all of this training and payment, the Pennsylvania Cosmetology Board denied their license applications. Their criminal records were evidence of a lack of “good moral character,” according to the board, which promptly barred them from earning an honest living in their field of study, even after they secured job offers.

The experiences of these two women are not unique. Nearly one in three jobs now requires a government-granted license, and both states and the federal government have enacted more than 20,000 licensing restrictions on those with a criminal record. Many of these restrictions do not require any connection between a person’s offense and the duties of the licensed job.

The nagging employment problem formerly incarcerated people face, combined with the wealth of evidence associating qualityemployment with crime-free behavior, should compel lawmakers to create a clear path to licensure for individuals before they ever leave prison.

Last year, a lawyer and reform advocate in California lamented “a lot of (prison) programs actually train people how to do these jobs … without telling them they’ll be banned from getting the license.” This leads to ill-fated situations like those of Spillane and Haveman. To avoid wasting time and potentially thousands of dollars on pursuing licenses they cannot obtain, incarcerated individuals need to be made aware of licensing restrictions well before they begin training for a job.

Lawmakers should look to Michigan as a prime example of reform in this area. Thanks to recent measures, the state’s Department of Corrections now collaborates with its Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to determine if a vocational training candidate meets Michigan’s licensing requirements before he or she begins a prison training program.

Once those in prison are aware of potential licensing barriers and enrolled in training, they should receive credit for any licensing requirements they satisfy while incarcerated. Ideally, this reform would include the possibility of inmates earning a license while incarcerated or immediately after release. Currently, only 7 percent of individuals receive some sort of certification while in prison, and it’s unclear how many of these certifications lead to full-fledged licenses states require in order to work.

Again, Michigan’s example provides promise. According to an auto shop instructor in Michigan’s Vocational Village, a first-of-its-kind skilled trades training program, inmates can earn state-mandated licenses through a collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “We have a deal worked out with the licensing bureau,” he said. “If [an inmate] can pass the test, they’ll actually walk out of here with license in hand.” States seeking to ease the transition from prison to work should follow Michigan’s lead in this regard.

If lawmakers want licensing reforms to succeed, they’ll need to make sure employers are brought in as key partners in crafting job training programs and placing talent. Maine’s Department of Corrections, for instance, offers a program that allows participants to gain journeyman’s licenses in one of six trade jobs. The leaders of the program work with local employers to transition those in prison from vocational school to work release. Integrating private employers within licensed career-training programs wherein inmates can complete training, acquire a license, and immediately transition to a paid job post-release is necessary to create a robust prison-to-work program.

Securing employment soon after release reduces recidivism rates and allows the formerly incarcerated individual to return to a stable life. Unfortunately, Draconian occupational licensing laws hamstring hard-working people like Spillane and Haveman in their efforts to do so.

The Institute of Justice has taken Spillane’s and Haveman’s cases to court. But if Pennsylvania had a clear pathway to licensure, they would already be pursuing their careers. The status quo of a revolving prison door is unacceptable. Inmates with the desire and ambition to work in a licensed field should be allowed to do so, and employers should be encouraged to hire them as soon as they exit prison gates.

Image from Shutterstock

Featured Publications