Sweeping legislation that removes so-called "good character" provisions from all of Oklahoma's occupational licensing laws cleared the state legislature this week in near unanimous fashion. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt is expected to sign the bill.
This is a huge deal. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the country (and, by extension, the highest incarceration rate anywhere in the world), and many of the state's licensed professions are effectively off limits to anyone with a criminal record. Once signed, HB 1373 will remove the broad-but-vague rules that allow occupational licensing boards to deny license applications on the grounds that an individual lacks "good moral character."
The bill was approved with a 90-2 vote in the House on Monday after a unanimous 42-0 vote in the Senate last month.
"Today's vote opens doors to opportunity and employment for thousands of Oklahomans looking for meaningful employment and a second chance," said Jenna Moll, deputy director for the Justice Action Network, which advocated for the bill's passage.
Licensing boards will be allowed to deny licenses to individuals who have committed specific crimes—each board will have to publish a list of disqualifying offenses—but that's a huge improvement over the so-called "blanket bans" that mostly serve to exclude individuals from jobs they would otherwise be qualified to do.
While those rules are common in many states, they rarely make much sense. Disqualifying someone from working with kids when they have a criminal record that includes child abuse makes sense, of course, but why should someone convicted of embezzlement be ineligible to drive a truck or cut hair? Sometimes those rules prevent ex-offenders from working in professions for which they are obviously qualified—like in California, where anyone with a criminal record is prohibited from becoming a professional firefighter—which requires an emergency medical technician license—even if those same individuals participated in the state's inmate firefighter program.
In Oklahoma, Stitt championed the licensing reforms as part of an overall package of criminal justice reform bills he endorsed earlier this month. He also called for legislation that would shorten the sentences of Oklahomans currently serving time for nonviolent drug crimes that are now misdemeanors under new state drug laws, and he wants to overhaul Oklahoma sentencing and parole guidelines to get nonviolent offenders out of prison quickly (or keep them from going there in the first place).
The licensing reforms are intended to help make sure that once they get out, these prisoners don't go back. Research shows that the best indicator that an ex-convict will commit another crime is the lack of a job, and the unemployment rate for Oklahomans with criminal records is nearly five times higher than that of the general population, according to data from Tulsa University.
Aside from the social cost of those crimes, there is a very real fiscal cost. Estimates vary, but the Pew Center for the States figures that states could save $15 million by reducing recidivism just 10 percent.
"Thanks to this legislation," said Moll, "those with an unrelated and long-past criminal record in Oklahoma will no longer be barred from obtaining an occupational license that will help them find jobs and contribute to society, which will increase employment opportunities and public safety while decreasing recidivism."
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