Roughly one-quarter of the jobs in the U.S. require some type of occupational licensing, a number that has quadrupled since the 1950s. And many states deny those with criminal records a chance to obtain a license for various types of work, shrinking potential employment opportunities people might have otherwise been able to take advantage of.
But that is starting to change.
Occupational licensing is determined at the state level. And according to public interest law firm Institute for Justice, in the past six years, 33 states and the District of Columbia have changed their occupational licensing laws to lessen licensing restrictions placed on those with criminal records.
Report outlines status of barriers to occupational licensing
Last year, the firm released Barred from Working: A Nationwide Study of Occupational Licensing Barriers for Ex-Offenders. The report summarizes the overall status of occupational licensing barriers across the U.S.
Among the most serious restrictions the research found were that:
- Nine states operate licensing boards that can disqualify applicants based on any felony they’ve been charged with, even if it is completely unrelated to the license being sought.
- Thirty-four states can deny licenses based on an arrest that did not lead to a criminal conviction, meaning the applicant could actually be innocent of the crime.
The report also gives a letter grade to each state based on a variety of criteria, explaining in detail why that grade was given. At the time it was released, only two states – Indiana and New Hampshire – received As. And nine states – Massachusetts, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont – all received Fs. The average grade is a C.
Since then, however, Rhode Island has been bumped up to an A grade, thanks to the state legislature’s passage of what it calls the Fair Chance Licensing Act. This new law states that applicants can only be denied licenses if they were convicted of a crime that is “substantially” related to the license.
Ohio also improved its grade – from a D to an A – when HB 263 was signed into law early this year. The law applies to more than 300 different licenses issued by 37 separate agencies, boards, commissions and departments. HB 263 also states that offenses must be directly related to the license being applied for. In addition, it prevents boards from using criminal charges that didn’t result in a conviction, as well as convictions more than five years old, unless they are sexual, violent or fiduciary crimes.
In April, Arizona passed HB 2787 that allows a person with a criminal record to petition a licensing agency before they embark on education and training to determine whether their record disqualifies them from obtaining a license. Like in Rhode Island, if a license is denied, the offense must “specifically and directly relate to the duties and responsibilities of the occupation.” The state must also prove that the person “is more likely to reoffend by virtue of having the license, permit, certificate or other state recognition” than if the person did not have it.
These are just a few examples of recent legislation, but there are many others, including two passed last year:
To better understand how individual states handle the consideration of criminal arrests and convictions in employment and occupational licensing, check out the Restoration of Rights Project website. It includes a state-by-state analysis of employment laws with a special section on licensing laws and codes for each state.