Research & Commentary: Lowering Professional Licensing Barriers for Ex-Offenders

Published November 7, 2018

Nearly one in three Americans need an occupational license to do their job, even though these burdensome licenses harm consumers, entrepreneurs, and jobseekers. On average, low- and medium-income jobseekers in licensed professions are required to spend nine months in education or training, pass an exam, and pay more than $200 in fees, according to the Institute for Justice.

The situation is even worse for those attempting to reenter society after serving time. According to the Alliance for a Just Society, on average, states have 56 occupational licensing and 43 business licensing laws that ban applicants with felony convictions. In many instances, felons are immediately disqualified from obtaining a license, even if the job has little to do with their offense.

Giving former offenders the opportunity to reenter the workforce is important. Each year, more than 10 million adults are freed from prison and finding a job is a serious challenge for them. Obtaining gainful employment is one of the most powerful tools for lowering recidivism. According to a study from the Manhattan Institute, ex-offenders who quickly found employment after being released were 20 percent less likely to return behind bars.

Ending blanket bans for ex-offenders is essential because these onerous rules do little to protect public health and safety while making it more likely these individuals will remain unemployed. Fortunately, there are several reforms that would make the license system fairer for ex-offenders while ensuring public safety.

The Justice Center at the Council of State Governments outlines three reforms states should consider: First, states should prohibit denials of a license based solely on an applicant’s criminal record unless an offender was convicted of a crime directly related to the occupation being considered. Second, states should require licensing boards to consider factors like the relevancy of an offense to a license and the time that has passed. Third, states should require licensing agencies to explain why a license is rejected and give the applicant the ability to repeal.

To date, Maryland has been a leader in embracing these much-needed reforms. In 2018, the Old Line state passed a law that ensures that licensing restrictions on those with non-violent, non-sexual criminal records do not pose a permanent ban on work.

Besides Maryland, Louisiana and Ohio have also initiated licensing reforms. For instance, the Pelican State prohibited licensing boards from denying a license based solely on an applicant’s criminal record. The Buckeye State allows ex-offenders to apply for a certificate of qualification for employment that lifts the automatic ban.

Making it almost impossible for applicants with a criminal record to find work is just one of many problems that burdensome licensing laws place produce. Just consider the maze of rules, regulations, testing, and fees entrepreneurs must face to receive a professional license.

States should provide an environment in which all residents, especially offenders, can obtain work to provide for their families. By doing so, prosperity will increase, more jobs will be created, residents will return to the workforce, and less offenders will likely return to their criminal ways.

The following documents examine occupational licensing in greater detail.

How to Help Those with a Criminal Record Find Work
Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center discusses how states can make it easier for those with a criminal record to find work and stay out of the prison system.

To Help Ex-Offenders Get Jobs, Some States Reconsider Licenses
Sophie Quinton of Stateline examines the efforts by states to change how licensing boards consider licenses for ex-offenders.

The Consideration of Criminal Records in Occupational Licensing
This factsheet, produced by the CSG Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center in partnership with the National Employment Law Project, is designed to serve as an informational outline for policymakers and other stakeholders who want to learn more about obstacles that individuals with criminal records face when seeking employment due to state occupational licensing policies.

Working with Conviction: Criminal Offenses as Barriers to Entering Licensed Occupations in Texas
Marc Levin, Director, Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation examines the barriers making it difficult for ex-offenders to receive professional licenses in Texas an make several suggestions on how the state can reform this process.

Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People With Records
This paper from the National Employment Law Project examines the significant flaws in state occupational licensing criminal background check requirements and the issues created by blanket bans.

The Effects of Occupational Licensure on Competition, Consumers, and the Workforce
This paper by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University examines the costs and benefits of occupational licensing regulations on consumers, the economy, and the workforce, and it also recommends areas in need of reform.

Bottleneckers Beware: Occupational Licensing Reform Bills Filed Across the Nation
Matt Powers of the Institute for Justice examines the growing trend in states to reduce burdensome occupational licensing laws, which impede dozens of industries nationwide.

Right to Earn a Living Act
The Goldwater Institute argues the burdens of occupational licensing in many states are excessive and should not be placed on those who want to earn an honest living. Instead, governments should bear the burden of justifying the restrictions. The authors argue states should enact a Right to Earn a Living Act to protect freedom of enterprise. By doing so, they will ensure that economic opportunity is not merely a promise but a reality.

License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing
The Institute for Justice conducted a national study to measure how burdensome occupational licensing laws are for low-income workers. The authors found “the barriers imposed by licensure schemes on those wishing to enter the 102 lower-income occupations we studied are not only widespread but often severe, arbitrary and irrational.” The authors conclude, “As millions of Americans struggle to find productive work, one of the quickest ways legislators can help is to simply get out of the way: Reduce or remove burdensome regulations that force job-seekers and would-be entrepreneurs to spend precious time and money earning a license instead of working.”


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