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Current restrictions often use imprecise, outdated language—targeting anyone guilty of "moral turpitude," for example—which allows boards to deny licenses even when a crime happened long ago or had nothing to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.

NEXT: Gary Johnson Contemplating Libertarian Run for Senate in New Mexico

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  1. But in all 50 states, whether you are an ex-con or not, it is still HIGHLY illegal to make yourself a cheap plastic flute, and blow on it, w/o a doctor’s prescription!

    So don’t DO it, man!!! HERE is what you should NOT do!!!

  2. My career was in criminal corrections and I grew up in a small town that hosted Montana’s state prison. Some of my neighbors were formerly inmates. I like to argue from anecdotes I am confidant are true.

    In 1964 a man named Charles Corliss was convicted of an execution style murder. He was a model prisoner. He married a woman who started writing him in prison. A son was fathered on a conjugal visit.

    When Charles escaped in the late 1970’s, her house was searched many times. Months went by, voices continued to be heard from the house. At last a search found that a cavity had been so cleverly fashioned between mattress and box springs the bed could appear neatly made and nothing seen under the bed, but he was in there.

    When Charles Corliss Sr. was released in 1988, he worked construction jobs before coming to Washington because of a generous and liberal program for released felons that came to be a magnet for out-of-staters as well. His wife and son came too.

    In 1992 Corliss Sr. committed another execution-style murder in Fall City, WA. His son was arrested a year later
    and charged with attempted murder on another matter. I was a Seattle corrections officer dealing with both.

    1. Your story provides excellent illustration of why “conjugal visits” to prisons are a bad idea… Prisoners are in no position to provide for, and raise, offspring. PLUS, violent criminal scum tend to raise more violent criminal scum.

      Now if only we could also de-populate the prisons of those who have committed nothing other than victimless crimes…

    2. Very interesting, and entirely irrelevant to the subject at hand. Did you accidentally post in the wrong thread?

      1. Didn’t fit The Narrative! Off to the Memory Hole!

    3. That did not happen!

      He was a hardened, grizzled criminal, but his heart was melted by the woman who taught how to … sniff… love again!

      It’s like you never watch TV at all!

    4. Good anecdote. Now produce 1000 more similar anecdotes which are verified by indifferent technocrats and you’ll have some data.

  3. OTH, where I live, (think Cheesetopia ) , state felonies presently go up to Schedule I. When we run out of English characters, do we switch to Greek? Sumerian? There are many instances in which assigning felonies seems to be an end-run around the 2nd amendment. Merely speculating.

  4. “and any license that requires a four-year degree”

    We don’t want them as neighbors.

  5. What’s even more prohibitive is something that’s a lot more difficult for libertarians: private companies are freely choosing to discriminate against people who have been previously convicted of a crime. The libertarian argument is pretty straightforward here – private companies can hire and fire who they want. I don’t know of any way to solve this issue aside from throwing fewer people in jail, especially the innocent ones. Kind of brings us back to basics…

    1. Yeah, the licensing thing is a different animal though.

      1. Yeah. At least an ex-con who no one will hire might be able to start his own business, if the government doesn’t explicitly tell him “You are not allowed to work”.

    2. HR are the quintessential apparatchiks
      No one gets fired for hiring a meh employee
      They do get fired to hiring someone with a known risk who doesn’t work out

      It’s all about taking actions that don’t get you fired

  6. A company would be mad not to strongly consider a criminal record when hiring. If one hires an ex-con and he steals, defrauds, assaults, rapes, kills, injures or otherwise harms someone on company time, one can expect a lawsuit for negligent hiring to follow.

    I’m all for rehabilitation and second chances in theory. In practice, I’m not jeopardizing my business and family’s security for a stranger.

    Under our current legal system, hiring a convicted criminal carries a significant financial risk. That’s just a fact. Who should fairly bear that burden? The innocent business owner, or the person who committed the crime?

    1. “The innocent business owner, or the person who committed the crime?”

      He who has the deepest pockets, pays!!! This has been the “de facto” standard, as implemented by the lawsuit lottery, for many-many decades now…

    2. I’m all for rehabilitation and second chances in theory.
      “I love free speech, but…”

      Let’s assume that the person with a record actually committed a crime with a real victim, and let’s further assume that they were fairly convicted in an evidence-based trial. (Yes, yes. I know. It’s already a laugh riot in delightful Title IV America. Just roll with it.)

      Having been released after ostensibly serving their debt to society, what do we expect to happen if they are then informally sentenced to a life without gainful employment.

      Math – it means more than coming up with an answer that makes personal sense to one’s self. Math means coming up with good results. I present that we may not be doing that with optimal effectiveness.

      In fairness, your question is a valid one under the circumstances presented. It still may be nevertheless the wrong question. That is part of the problem; we keep getting backed by outside influences into asking the wrong questions.

      1. This is one of those examples where societal benefit and personal benefit are not aligned. Nobody wants to be the one to take the risk, but at the same time, we all realize what’s best for society. Unfortunately, this kind of situation is ripe for government advocates to step in and say that a law should force employers to hire them. I think libertarians need to come up with a better solution before this kind of shit is imposed on everybody, but as I said in my other post, I’m not sure what that solution is.

  7. My nephew owns a largish company that does spectacular fireworks shows for all occasions. They did a lavish one at a ski lodge for New Year’s Eve for a brewing company’s party. It was snowing lightly and let me tell ya, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen fireworks diffracted through light snowflakes.

    Anyhow, nephew has storehouses spotted around the West. Want to seem his face light up like the Violet Chrythsanium Streaming Delayed Burst mortar round? Just force him to hire a few reformed arsonists.

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