Testimony from:
Marc Hyden, Director of State Government Affairs, R Street Institute

In SUPPORT of SB 157: “Professions and Businesses; preclearance process in the licensing of individuals with criminal records who make an application to or are investigated by certain licensing boards and commissions”

March 13, 2023

House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee

Chairman and members of the committee,

My name is Marc Hyden. I am a Georgia resident and the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization. Our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government in many areas, including criminal justice reform. That is why SB 157 is of special interest to us.

While only around 5 percent of Americans needed a professional license to work in the 1950s, that share has surged to roughly 30 percent today. These licenses are generally justified as a means to protect the public from unscrupulous and unqualified workers, and they come with many requirements. Georgia’s occupational licensing regimes are particularly onerous—ranking as the country’s 12th most burdensome for lower-income professions.

On average, Georgia law requires more than “$185 in fees, 464 days of education and experience, and about two exams,” to obtain a license. This presents a daunting obstacle for many. Myriad individuals with certain criminal records are prohibited from obtaining a license, and state law empowers some licensing boards to reject applications if applicants fail to meet vague character and fitness standards. Thankfully, if passed, SB 157 would reverse this longstanding policy, and for good reason.

To date, around 4.3 million Georgians—or 40 percent—have a criminal record. For many, these records represent mistakes made in their youth and are for small-time, petty crimes. Simply due to a mark on their criminal background, an individual may be turned away from being able to obtain an occupational license. This essentially ensures that they will be unemployed or underemployed.

An active workforce that reaches its employment potential is not only good for the economy, but also public safety. “Having a job […] has been shown to reduce recidivism, and individuals are less likely to commit crimes when they have stable, full-time employment,” according to the Brookings Institution. Safely and responsibly removing barriers to professional licenses will do just that and make it easier for those who made mistakes to obtain gainful employment. Perhaps as a result, this will improve public safety and reduce jail and prison populations.

There is a strong case to be made that criminal background checks can serve an important role and that specific crimes should preclude people from entering certain occupations. However, Sen. Brian Strickland’s bill takes a prudent approach. It would ensure that licensing boards would no longer be able to reject licensing applications based on nebulous character standards or past crimes that are unrelated to the professional industry in question. This would benefit an untold number of Georgians and the broader economy.

Like much of the country, Georgia is grappling with severe workforce shortages in numerous sectors. Addressing these shortages has proven challenging, given that there is a limited number of potential workers. Georgia has a low unemployment rate, and there are more job openings than unemployed people. There is no single silver bullet on which to rely, but removing unnecessary criminal justice impediments to work will certainly help Georgia’s workforce reach its potential. Given this, I respectfully urge the committee to support SB 157.

Thank you for your time.

Marc Hyden
Director, State Government Affairs
R Street Institute
(404) 918-2731
[email protected]