Civil Liberties

A Second Chance for People With Criminal Records


For many of the roughly 600,000 Americans to be released from prison this year, the best predictor of whether they become law-abiding citizens is their ability to land a job. Unfortunately, state licensing laws often shut the formerly incarcerated out of work. While there is wide variance in licensing requirements across the states, more than 10,000 individual regulations prohibit people with criminal records from working in dozens of professions.

Some of the restrictions make sense. Banning a person convicted of harming children from working in a day care probably strikes the right balance. But in Maryland, a misdemeanor conviction means you can't work as a cosmetologist, a plumber, or a fortune teller (what won't Maryland regulate?). In Nebraska, a misdemeanor is grounds to deny a license in massage therapy, and in Kansas it could prohibit you from working as a dietician.

"It is possible to protect public safety and people's ability to work at the same time," says Jared Meyer, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a nonprofit that's working with state lawmakers to reduce unnecessary obstacles for those with criminal records.

Current restrictions often use imprecise, outdated language—targeting anyone guilty of "moral turpitude," for example—which allows boards to deny licenses even when a crime happened long ago or had nothing to do with the job in question. Instead of blanket bans, the FGA encourages states to list specific crimes for which certain licenses will be denied.

To combat this problem, 12 states have passed some version of a "fresh start" bill already this year. Not all are fully inclusive—Kansas, for instance, exempted health care professions and any license that requires a four-year degree—and two of those states have only agreed to "study" the issue for now. But reformers have clearly grabbed the momentum.

Still, defenders of the status quo are pushing back. In Nebraska, Laura Ebke, the Libertarian Party's only sitting state senator, convinced her colleagues and Gov. Pete Ricketts to support a far-reaching licensing reform bill, but lawmakers amended the proposal. A requirement for professional boards to list out the crimes that can disqualify someone was removed. Instead, the law allows formerly incarcerated individuals to petition boards for a review of their criminal records before entering the licensing application process. It's an improvement, but it's not ideal.

The narrow concerns of professional associations that want to make it harder for outsiders to enter their markets should not supersede what's in the best interest of Americans trying to turn their lives around. More than half the people released from prison are still unemployed a year later. To the extent that arbitrary licensing rules influence that statistic, they are an illiberal burden on the formerly incarcerated and a disservice to us all.