How Occupational Licensure is Tied to Justice Reform

FreedomWorks has written previously about how occupational licensure laws hurt the economy, small businesses, and people without the means to get a government issued license. However, occupational licensure is also a justice reform issue.

People around the country with felony convictions become automatically ineligible for thousands of occupational licenses, making it near impossible for those who have served their time and paid their debt to society to support themselves. Too often, people are forced to return to a life of crime because employers do not want to hire convicted criminals and licensure laws prohibit them from using the skills they have to make a living.

Bernard Kerik, the Director and Founder of the American Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, spoke about the barriers created by licensure laws at a public briefing titled Conservatives with Convictions: Conservatives Push to Reform Failing Criminal Justice System. Kerik, who worked in law enforcement for over 30 years and was nominated by George W. Bush as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland in 2004, served four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to false statements and tax charges. He didn’t pay payroll tax for his children’s nanny.

Kerik provided a detailed depiction of the failed systems he saw while incarcerated. Taxpayer money is being spent so that inmates can take classes and learn skills while they are serving their time; however, once people are released, those skills become useless. The trades people learn while incarcerated require licenses in the outside world. Even though former inmates have the skills necessary to work, the possibility of doing so lays just out of reach behind an unscalable wall labeled “government regulation.” Hundreds of thousands of people who want to be productive members of society are released from prison every year only to be denied the opportunity to support themselves.

Criminal justice reform has recently proven to be a bipartisan issue that brings people together for the very real possibility of change. While reform of occupational licensure laws has been traditionally pushed by conservatives, recent events indicate that here could be growing bipartisan support for this labor issue as well, especially if reform is proposed from the justice reform angle.

Last week, the White House issued a report by the Department of the Treasury Office of Economic Policy, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Department of Labor which supported reform of licensure laws.

“It often takes six months to a year for some [s]tates to simply review an applicant’s criminal history and make an initial determination about whether she qualifies for a license,” the report states, “licensing laws often contain blanket exclusions for the formerly incarcerated or those with criminal records, regardless of whether their records are relevant to the job for which they are applying. This renders a great number of individuals… ineligible for a large share of jobs, in turn perpetuating unstable economic situations for these individuals.”

In other words, as is often the case with government regulation, the licensing system is bogged down and overbearing. People can be prohibited from getting licensed to work in fields regardless of the (ir)relevance of their convictions to the work they will be doing. Furthermore, in many states people with arrest records can be denied licenses even if they were never convicted! In fact, 38 states have laws that explicitly permit consideration of arrests that never led to convictions when people apply for occupational licenses. Punishment without conviction is an overt denial of due process and the sentiment that people are “innocent until proven guilty.”

Finally, it is important to recognize the vast number of normal people affected by occupational licensure laws because of criminal records. Enforcing that many convicted criminals are average citizens, Kerik confidently asserted at last month’s briefing, “I could indict every person in this room.” As published by The Hill, “roughly one in three Americans now has a criminal record, along with the lifelong problems that often accompany it, including severely impacting the ability to get a job, occupational license, and housing.” Occupational licensure is a hindrance to progress, and cannot be ignored any longer.