Criminal justice shouldn't deny juveniles the chance to win gainful employment

Criminal justice shouldn't deny juveniles the chance to win gainful employment
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Juvenile facilities are increasingly offering opportunities to young people to focus on training and development of vocational skills. Take the Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center in Alabama, which recently received funds to continue developing their program to teach juvenile offenders welding. The program has improved youth engagement, fostered math skills and encouraged youth to earn a GED, according to the director of the program.

However, without post-release support and logistical training, education alone does not ensure youthful offenders a viable career path. To become a gainfully employed welder, for example, a youth would need to obtain certification and, in some states like New York, attain further licensing. And this poses a problem.

Many technical fields — and an estimated 25 percent of all jobs — require an occupational license. Occupational licenses are regulated at the state level and, in many cases, despite receiving the training to practice in a field, an individual with a criminal record will be ultimately prohibited from receiving the licensing he or she needs. A survey completed in December 2015 found that one-third of occupational licenses include automatic exclusions for individuals with criminal records.

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Occupational certification and licensing requirements are impeding success for participants in alternative technical education programs. Rather than just training juveniles in a trade, we need to talk about the logistics of entering a trade.

 

In Alabama, for example, a youth with welding skills may wish to become a plumber, a gas fitter, a motor vehicle rebuilder, a general contractor, or a home builder. However, all these occupations are regulated by licensing boards, which may freely deny a license to someone with a criminal record. In fact, Alabama is one of eleven states with no laws restricting a licensing boards’ consideration of arrest and conviction records.

States are trying to find ways to address this reentry issue. One option is to offer youth training in career trajectories that do not require occupational licensing. GrandLo Café, proposed by the Grand Street Settlement social service organization in New York, will provide service industry job training — like the skills required to become a barista or manage a restaurant — and will plan individualized meetings between mentors and participants. For youth interested in these types of opportunities, GrandLo Café is a great option.

However, many young people are interested in higher-paying, more technical fields that require certification and/or licenses. Kansas has successfully addressed the certification hurdle by incorporating it into its technical skills training through Senate Bill 367, which was passed in 2016. 

The bill, which has decreased youth incarceration since its implementation, requires that each juvenile receive a tailored recovery and reentry plan appropriate for the specific risks associated with each participant. Part of that individualization includes partnering with Washburn Institute of Technology to incorporate technical training programs. Participants take Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classes in technical areas like electrical, plumbing and construction, meaning that upon successful completion, students leave the program with an OSHA certification card.

Another state leading the way in supporting occupational licensure for ex-offenders is Colorado. Colorado passed a law removing the automatic bar to obtaining an occupational license. Succinctly stated in within the statute is the state’s goal to increase employment opportunities for those who “have been rehabilitated and are ready to accept the responsibilities of a law-abiding and productive member of society.” Colorado’s model is exemplary because a conviction alone will not block an ex-offender from licensure no matter the occupation.

Yet employment hurdles still exist. Even if a state licensing board does not bar those with a criminal record from obtaining a license, youth completing technical training may still face barriers to employment. For example, employers may still deny or rescind job offers based on a background check.

Additionally, occupational licenses constrict geographical mobility — that a given state allows the unlicensed practice of a trade does not mean other states won’t require a license for that same trade. And even if an individual can obtain a license in Colorado, there is no guarantee that he or she will be as successful in Utah or Arizona.

Programs within juvenile detention facilities must take into account the landscape of occupational licensing, and other barriers, on the outside. Otherwise, vocational and technical training may be an empty promise of a better future.

Nila Bala (@NilaBala3) is a senior fellow in criminal justice policy with the nonprofit R Street Institute, and Jesse Kelley (@JessdKelley) is a policy analyst and state affairs manager for criminal justice with the R Street Institute.