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Criminal justice, occupational licensing reforms can go hand in hand

Criminal justice, occupational licensing reforms can go hand in hand
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Currently in both Maryland and Tennessee, a criminal past — or even just being accused of a crime — often stands between people and a job. This is because many occupational licensing laws prevent ex-offenders from being able to obtain a license for the jobs they seek. What’s more, many of these restrictions aren’t targeted at people whose criminal history relates to their desired career; instead, they can serve as blanket bans for those hoping to enter hundreds of professions including plumbing, cosmetology and interior design.

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By prohibiting wide swaths of people from licensure, these boards aren’t protecting health and safety — they’re just making it more likely these individuals will remain unemployed and unable to support themselves or their families. This, of course, is counterproductive, as keeping ex-offenders employed is good both for families and for the safety of communities.

Recently, the American Bar Association found 348 licensing or certification restrictions in Maryland for those with criminal records. The situation is similar in Tennessee. Many of these are wholly arbitrary. For example, right now, in Calvert County, Md., a person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor is disqualified from working as a fortune-teller. Similarly, Tennessee currently allows licensing boards to prevent anyone convicted of felonies from becoming architects, engineers, cosmetologists, accountants, and even auctioneers.

Perhaps worse, in some cases, people need only to be accused of a crime — not even convicted of it — for the board to deny them a license. Many of these bans are also permanent, which means that regardless of how much time has passed, a person can be denied an occupational license to work in his or her chosen field — forever.

Some regulations also make criminal histories an automatic bar to licensure. This means that a person can be denied an occupational license irrespective of the crime’s relevance to the job, or even whether there are mitigating circumstances. In one instance in Tennessee, for example, a woman convicted for prostitution over a decade ago learned she couldn’t become a radiation therapist despite having gotten her life back on track. In other cases, boards have broad discretion to deny licenses to applicants with any felony on their record, even when safety concerns may not exist.

Every year, about 10 million adults return to their communities from both jails and prisons, and getting and keeping a job remains a challenge for them. Yet continued unemployment after release is one of the highest predictors that an individual will commit another crime. On the other hand, a study from the Manhattan Institute found that ex-offenders who quickly found employment after being released were 20 percent less likely to reoffend.

States vary widely in the types of occupations they regulate, as well as in how heavy their licensing burdens are. Not surprisingly, for states with harsher regimes, the reoffending rate is higher than in states with more lenient schemes. This further stresses the tie between excessive occupational licensing and increased recidivism.

However, April is "Second Chance Month" and both Maryland and Tennessee currently have excellent opportunities to make real changes that would honor the spirit of the occasion.

In Maryland, House Bill 1597 — sponsored by Delegate Charles Sydnor, D-Annapolis — would ensure that licensing restrictions on those with non-violent, non-sexual criminal records do not pose a permanent ban on work. Similarly, in Tennessee, the General Assembly recently passed a bill to reform the criminal background check requirements for the state’s licensing laws. In both cases, these bills sit waiting merely for their governors to sign them.

Indeed, with just two strokes of the pen, "Second Chance Month" may yet live up to its name this year, and Maryland and Tennessee can become models for the many states around the country that still have much to do to lessen their own burdensome licensing regimes.

Shoshana Weissmann is a policy analyst and the digital media specialist at the R Street Institute. Follow her on Twitter @SenatorsShoshana

Nila Bala is a criminal justice senior fellow with R Street and a former Baltimore public defender. Follow her @nilabala3.