As if those leaving prison and jails don’t have enough problems finding employment, there’s one more challenge they face. An estimated total of at least one-quarter of all U.S. jobs require some type of licensing. And people with criminal records are prohibited from obtaining many of these licenses.
Not only can they not work in a vast variety of positions that require licensing, but those who have a criminal record can’t start their own businesses in the restricted occupations. And in many cases, it doesn’t even matter if the crime committed has any relevance to the type of work for which the license is required.
Occupational licensing is determined at the state level, and an estimated 32,000 laws nationwide related to occupational and business licensing include a consideration of criminal records. These laws are listed in the National Bar Association National Inventory of Collateral Causes of Conviction.
The inventory is catalogued and searchable by state, offering a list of all the applicable laws and exactly what they prohibit. It’s an excellent source for those who would like to know if they can – or cannot – pursue licensing for a particular job in a particular state.
The number and scope of the laws provide a serious impediment to those with criminal records and those in reentry trying to get back on their feet. They’re also a detriment to society, with states spending millions of dollars to pay for the cost of re-incarceration.
States with heaviest licensing burdens show highest recidivism rates
Turning Shackles into Bootstraps: Why Occupational Licensing Reform Is the Missing Piece of Criminal Justice Reform, a study done by Stephen Slivinski, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, W.P. Carey College of Business, Arizona State University, focused on the relationship between three-year recidivism rates and occupational licensing restrictions affecting those with criminal records.
The study’s research “estimates that between 1997 and 2007 the states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9%. Conversely, the states that had the lowest burdens and no such character provisions saw an average decline in that recidivism rate of nearly 2.5%.”
State laws reform licensing restrictions
Although the problem remains, several states are taking action to reform licensing laws to give those with criminal records more opportunities.
For example, last year Illinois passed HB5973 that, according to the bill, “allows the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to consider an applicant’s prior conviction or convictions, but provides that the conviction or convictions may not be the sole basis for refusing to issue a license unless the crime substantially and directly relates to the occupation for which the license is sought.”
In April, the governor of Kentucky signed SB120 into law. The bill removes automatic bans for felons seeking professional/occupational licenses and guarantees that those who are refused a license be granted a hearing.
Connecticut, another state making legal reforms, passed HB5764 into law in July. The new law removes criminal history restrictions from the licensing of barbers and hair dressers.
While these are just a few examples, they give an idea of what can and needs to be done by the states on a much broader level. Stakeholders who deal with those incarcerated and in reentry may want to organize and influence elected officials to change any existing laws requiring licenses that create barriers to employment.
By lifting restrictions to licensing for those with criminal records, those struggling to reestablish their lives after leaving prison or jail will have more opportunities to find employment and more jobs to choose from.