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Out of Prison Means Out of Work

One of the biggest and most important challenges facing the estimated 600,000 Americans who will be released from prison this year is the prospect of finding a job. Employment can be the difference between putting their lives together again or ending up back behind bars.

In many states, though, government makes it harder for the formerly incarcerated to find work, thanks to arbitrary restrictions written into state licensing laws that prohibit anyone with a criminal record from getting a professional license—even if his conviction had nothing to do with the occupation, and even if he's been out of prison for years.

In 29 states, occupational licensing boards are allowed to reject applications from anyone with a felony conviction. In Illinois, for example, a criminal record automatically disqualifies people from obtaining 118 different state licenses, preventing them from pursuing work as barbers, massage therapists, roofers, cosmetologists, and dozens of other professions.

With fewer options for legal work, the formerly incarcerated are more likely to resume a life of crime. That's the conclusion from a first-of-its-kind study released in November by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University. After reviewing licensing rules and recidivism rates for a 10-year period beginning in 1997, the study found that formerly incarcerated residents are more likely to commit a new crime within three years of being released from prison if they live in a state where they're prohibited from getting a license solely for having a criminal record.

Over the decade of the study, the average recidivism rate in the country—the rate at which formerly incarcerated people are convicted of new crimes that send them back to prison—rose by 2.6 percent. In the 29 states where a criminal record can disqualify you from getting an occupational license, the rate rose by 9.4 percent, researchers found, while it actually declined by 4.2 percent in states without those provisions in their licensing laws.

Even after factoring in a state's overall labor market conditions, there remains a statistically significant relationship between strict licensing laws and higher-than-average recidivism rates, says Stephen Slivinski, the author of the Arizona State study.

Lawmakers are starting to notice. "We want people to get out of prison and be able to have jobs," says Libertarian state Sen. Laura Ebke (District 32), who sponsored a bill this year to overhaul Nebraska's licensing laws and reduce the number of licenses that are off-limits to the formerly incarcerated. Even though several other licensing reforms made it to Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' desk this spring, her bill is still waiting for a vote.

In Kentucky, the story has been more positive. A bill, sponsored by state Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R–Hopkinsville) and signed in April by Gov. Matt Bevin, removes the automatic prohibition on granting many licenses—including those for air conditioning and heating technicians, land surveyors, and several construction jobs—to the formerly incarcerated. Instead, the bill allows licensing boards to consider an applicant's criminal history as one of several components in determining whether to grant a license. It's a system that could be abused by boards determined to keep out competition, as already happens in some instances, but it's an improvement over the current system of blanket bans.

Proposals like Ebke's and Westerfield's make sense from an economic perspective too. A 2008 study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a left-leaning think tank, found that the United States has "lost as many as 1.7 million workers due to employment barriers for people with criminal records." If all of them were working, the nation's unemployment rate would be nearly a full percentage point lower, researchers found. In places like Kentucky, where the state's Chamber of Commerce estimates that there may be as many as 110,000 open jobs, the effect could be significant.

Criminal justice reform often focuses on liberalizing sentencing laws—loosening mandatory minimums, for example, or allowing for alternative forms of punishment. Those are valuable reforms, Arizona State's Slivinski says, but they "don't address how best to reintegrate someone into the labor force once they have served their sentence." The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 60 percent and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed a year after being released.

"If they can't get a job," the Libertarian Party's Ebke says, "they're more likely to end up back in prison."

Photo Credit: Indomercy/123rf

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    One of my pet fantasy reforms is requiring all laws and regulations to be relevant and have predicted consequences. Anyone could bring suit to challenge laws and regulations, to be tried by a jury, with no appeals. If the jury does not unanimously agree a law is clear, relevant, and meets expectations, with no unexpected consequences, it's voided in its entirety -- no rewrite, no selective excising -- the whole thing goes out the window.

    The reason for eliminating appeals is because if a jury is so confused by a law or regulation that an appeals court decides they got it wrong, then, by definition, it's too confusing for ordinary people.

    Of course, there has to be some accountability and consequences for losing a challenge, so they'd be responsible for all court costs and the defense expenses. I wouldn't even mind much if they had to post bond beforehand for expected costs. A really unpopular law might garner hundreds of challenges every day for years; a clear law would get the same results every time, and the only real drawback would be hiring the thousands of jurors. Well, put those jobs out to bid -- pay real wages -- if you don't offer enough, your challenge will never be held. That's another damper one excess challenges.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    This is the kind of shit the ACLU or Southern Proverty blah blah should be addressing if their their purported purpose is to use the law to help the powerless see justice.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    *Poverty

  • MultiSlacker||

    Another example of how reason is sacrificed on the altar of self-righteousness.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It's just another gran illustration of what hypocrites we have in politics. Statists proclaim they want to help the poor and disadvantaged, then pass laws to make almost all their behavior illegal, and not only make it hard for the behaving ones to get jobs, but compound the hypocrisy by making it almost impossible for the misbehaving ones to grow up and reform.

  • Juice||

    I know someone who is about to spend a couple of nights in NYC and the hotel/hostel combo that she's staying in explicitly forbids any NYC residents from staying there. I think it's a law to basically ban flophouses. Although I can't see this place on the Upper East Side on Central Park becoming a haven for junkies and crazies, you'd think the government would want to prevent homelessness by allowing cheap places to sleep and wash up like a "flophouse" style arrangement, but no, that violates their snobby sense of taste.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    New Yorkers are just the worst. Always so full of their own shit about how awesome they think they are. Yet they let themselves be governed by the likes of Bolshevik Bill DeBasio, Anthony Eeimer, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Cuomo. They're even worse than Seattle, and that's saying something.

  • hello.||

    There's a strange correlation between serving time in prison and having less education. What were these people going to do, get out and go start performing heart surgery? At best they get out and get to go compete with Juan Rodriguez for a job as a construction hand or burger flipper for subsitence. But it's the licensing laws that are to blame. That's it.

  • creech||

    NJ Prisons have a cosmetology/barbering course that is so popular with inmates that there's a one year waiting list to enroll. Other popular courses include electronics, computers and carpentry. Sure, there's a lot of recidivism, but why - at the margins - put artificial barriers in the way of those who actually want to reform their lives?

  • Bubba Jones||

    They compared the results in states with different licensing laws. So, yes it is reasonable to blame the licensing laws. With usual caveats about retrospective association studies.

    I wish the article had included absolute percentages in addition to relative. That makes me think the numbers aren't as persuasive as we are led to believe. Or there is some nuance to the math that makes it less persuasive.

  • Hank Phillips||

    For prohibition laws there is an economic aspect. The government that puts them in jail also confiscates drugs which need to be sold on the black market once they are no longer needed as evidence. Who better than parolees or former convicts railroaded into jail over sumptuary laws? If those folks weren't branded and hounded, they might get real jobs. Who, then would the narcs rely on to sell tons and tons of confiscated and asset-forfeited drugs?

  • dschwar||

    So you don't believe all the reports filed by police departments about confiscated drugs being burned at incinerators? Can we get some fraud prosecutions going on in that case, since the city and/or county are paying for a service that is not actually being provided?

  • Merl3noir||

    It's a step in the right direction, but how about getting rid of licensing as a requirement to work in the first place.

  • SQRLSY One||

    +1, I approve of this message!

  • obijuan||

    Right, the problem is professional licensure instead of the fact no one wants to hire an ex-con. Should employers be denied the information to make such decisions? That's the real question.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    No the real answer is FYTW because coercive monopoly government always does this.

  • NYer||

    The article isn't saying that employers not wanting to hire ex-cons isn't a problem. Its saying that restrictive licensing rules is "a" problem. Which it is. Creating extensive licensing rules in order to work in certain industries then banning those with past criminal records from participating in those industries puts a weight against the economic mobility of ex-cons. By preventing ex-cons from legally starting their own businesses and working for themselves, state governments put them at the mercy of the very employers you speak of.

    "Should employers be denied the information to make such decisions?" I tend to lean yes. But I think the real question is: Have they paid their debt to society? If the answer is yes, then their records should be completely expunged. This is especially true when talking about non-violent crimes, and victim-less crimes (ex. drug use) all of which should be automatically expunged after they leave prison or as soon as their probation comes to an end. Not doing this is the endorsement of the belief that ex-cons should retain a permanent "scarlet letter" on their records, with the result being their continued alienation from society.

  • Juice||

    Have they paid their debt to society? If the answer is yes, then their records should be completely expunged.

    I don't know about expunging a felon's record when their sentence is up, especially for actual violent crimes.

  • NYer||

    I was less certain about violent crimes which is why I added the caveat. However, I guess the next question would be do we trust the people that we're releasing back out into society or not. If it's no, then perhaps keeping them on probation for a longer period of years after they gotten out of prison. Of course now we have to determine what we actually mean when we say "you paid your debt to society"

    In any case, I say expunge the victim-less crimes, then decide the rest on a case by case basis with a longer period of probation depending on the crime. My preferred policy would be of course to end the war on drugs and decriminalize/de-penalize most victim-less crimes, so we can reduce the number of these issues to begin with. Incidentally this would also likely help solve the problem of states being forced to let violent felons out of prison, because our prisons are too full of people who are non-violent felons or are their for victim-less crimes.

  • swampwiz||

    Of course, expunging the record of victimless crimes begs the question of why there are such crimes to begin with.

  • swampwiz||

    victimless *criminals*

  • Madashell||

    We need a better way to differentiate "career criminals" from people who have made a bad decision in the past and ended up with a "F-bomb" on their record (who are otherwise good people who just want to be productive and useful). I have a 10 year old (non-violent) felony drug offense that haunts my every move to this day,

    I have no one to blame but myself, I freely acknowledge this, but it's frustrating because before the addiction, I had 20 years of decorated public service that just doesn't seem to matter anymore, and the subsequent 10 years of success don't seem to matter either - all that matters is that one (large) blip on a piece of paper.

    We sit and wonder what is going wrong in our society - why so many people are acting so badly and the answer is right in front of our eyes. We (as a nation and a culture) treat people as if they are disposable. Well, people tend to live up (or down) to whatever expectation we set for them. If we keep making more "disposable" people, they will have no choice but to act out. Sad thing is, I probably couldn't even move to Colorado and open up a legal cannabis dispensary, because of my record - even the drug trade wouldn't touch me. I now sit in a job I despise, working for people who don't value me (because of my record), for far less than I'm worth and my family wonders why I'm clinically depressed.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I agree that once you've done the time, there should be no restrictions, no parole, probation, etc. Either you are free or you are locked up.

    But I disagree about expunging records. First off, you can't keep it a secret. It's going to be in newspapers for one. There are going to be gaps in your back story. How do you explain a ten year hole in your resume? Any law which can't be implemented or enforced is just an easy way to make everybody a criminal.

    It should be up to employers, friends and prospective friends, dates, spouses, etc how much your crime matters. No one would hire an ex-embezzler for anything involving money, but for anything else, why not? If a murderer can't get any but menial jobs, that makes him even more dependent on family and friends, and that's probably a good thing. Let him work for cousins or old friends for a few years until he's got a new track record.

  • NYer||

    I can see your point about violent offenders and/or financial crimes, but how about folks who were convicted for using drugs? Most of those folks shouldn't have been arrested or jailed to begin with, so I'm all in favor expunging those "crimes" from folks records.

    "Any law which can't be implemented or enforced is just an easy way to make everybody a criminal."

    Which is sort of part of the reason we're having this debate. We have so many laws on the books criminalizing all sorts of conduct, that we are now forced to debate remedies to the problems caused by government in the first place.

  • Hank Phillips||

    My great uncle was busted for alcoholic beverages during prohibition. The family still was buried and remained buried even when the enforcing government was crying for copper in the war against Germany and Japan. This business of holding a grudge for manufactured "crimes" victimizing persons who have violated no rights can cut both ways. Libertarians would probably get twice as many votes in Texas if people branded as "felons" for possession of hemp seeds were aware that they can vote once released.

  • NYer||

    " First off, you can't keep it a secret. It's going to be in newspapers for one. There are going to be gaps in your back story. How do you explain a ten year hole in your resume?"

    I don't know. I suspect in that situation a person would have to start off again in an entry level position anyway since they've been out of the their field for however many years. And if the crime was big enough to begin with that it was in the news I suspect that person will be either kept out of his field or at least prevented from having as big of a role. Or not? http://www.politico.com/story/.....her-235465

    "It should be up to employers, friends and prospective friends, dates, spouses, etc how much your crime matters."

    Maybe, I don't know. If you've paid your debt to society, then I'm not sure its fair to not to let folks get their records expunged. If the issue is the type of "crime" committed, then question is who are we letting out of prison, or off probation etc. and should those punishments be harsher and/or longer? We also already do let folks apply to get their records expunged depending on the crime, the state and how that particular bureaucrat who has to approve the application is feeling that day.

  • NYer||

    "If a murderer can't get any but menial jobs, that makes him even more dependent on family and friends, and that's probably a good thing. Let him work for cousins or old friends for a few years until he's got a new track record."

    I see your point on the friends and family bit, of course if they really don't have family their kind of shit out of luck. Hell, I don't even think I'm with fine with an actual murderer getting out of jail to begin with (Can they ever actually pay their debt to society? I don't know). I'm still trying to figure out where I stand on the death penalty (I believe its constitutional, but the states seem to keep fucking it up).

  • Longtobefree||

    " First off, you can't keep it a secret. It's going to be in newspapers for one. There are going to be gaps in your back story. How do you explain a ten year hole in your resume?"

    "I was involved as a consultant in a contract, partially funded by the state (local) government, to asses the impact of physical structures on work attitudes and behavior patterns."

    That's how. All resumes are creative writing anyway. Give a trusted friend's phone as the contact, and be sure they know which potential employers may be calling. To really make it look good, use a burn phone with a nice message, and do not answer it, always call back.

  • swampwiz||

    I see, so the way to get out of having a criminal history be a detriment to get work is to DEFRAUD. Got it!

  • swampwiz||

    In what world do you live in where folks have family & friends that can hire someone just to give him a job?

  • Juice||

    Right, the problem is professional licensure instead of the fact no one wants to hire an ex-con.

    It should be both instead of one!!

  • Agammamon||

    I don't know man - maybe read the article which doesn't say anything about doing that.

    Only about removing automatic 'no felon' conditions on *state licensing issue* and doesnt' touch at all on what individual businesses do.

  • Agammamon||

    I don't know man - maybe read the article which doesn't say anything about doing that.

    Only about removing automatic 'no felon' conditions on *state licensing issue* and doesnt' touch at all on what individual businesses do.

  • Agammamon||

    I don't know man - maybe read the article which doesn't say anything about doing that.

    Only about removing automatic 'no felon' conditions on *state licensing issue* and doesnt' touch at all on what individual businesses do.

  • Agammamon||

    One click, 3 posts - that's some service squirrels.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    RE:Out of Prison Means Out of Work
    If you're out of luck or out of work. We could send you to Johannesburg

  • 1980-f||

    Most people, I think it's acceptable to claim, want to see offenders get their just punishment. But they don't pay attention to the often lifelong consequences of even a non-custodial sentence. For people in the UK and the USA who have the mark of Cain - the letters S.O. after their name - they can be left after release from prison with nothing at all: friends and family want nothing to do with them; employers of any kind won't touch them with a bargepole; and the indefinite imposition of strict conditions for release (in the UK it's called a Sexual Risk Prevention Order) such as no internet or not having contact with the public mean that starting a business is impossible without breaching them.

    The same 'most people' won't give a rat's ass, as they say, about this. But it does mean that a rapidly growing number of people, many with serious sexual convictions, are left sitting around at home all day for the rest of their life. Is this okay with 'most people'? Is it a proven method of reducing recidivism?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Valid points, and points the LP needs to focus on. The national Libertarian platform needs to specifically call for expungement of records of those victimized by prohibition and other pseudoscientific laws used for political persecution or to meddle in commercial competition. State Libertarian Parties have taken up the slack in many places, but not enough to offset the tarbrush of equivocation-by-association with religious conservatives, whose only agenda is prohibition. In the sixties the Nixon war was exactly that, with underground railroads... the works. To hippies, blacks, Puerto Ricans and others that dictatorship was another Vichy France, their courts the instruments of madmen, like the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expected anything but persecution and many fled as fled from National Socialist People's Courts. Libertarian spoiler votes can transform simmering resentment into an engine for repeal of bad laws. BOTH kleptocracy parties in 2016 published prohibition planks. Those are exposed flanks.

  • ||

    It's worth nothing that these policies disproportionately affect minorities, especially African Americans, who are more likely to have criminal convictions. Some recent research (https://tinyurl.com/kngokow) showed that black people were more likely to opt for jail time rather than diversion programs, resulting in criminal records which would prevent them from obtaining future employment. Anyone's guess as to why that is, but the disproportionate effect on blacks of these sorts of licensing laws would follow automatically from that.

  • Specom||

    Because 1. They are more likely to get stuck with incompetent public defenders instead of real lawyers. 2. They are more likely to already have criminal records that are making life difficult. Why not just go hang out in jail some more if society has already trash canned you? 3. They are less likely to follow public norms in a sheeplike fashion. Why should they stop using substances to alter their reality? Because teacher sez so? What's so great about this reality? Especially for blacks.

  • Madashell||

    We need a better way to differentiate "career criminals" from people who have made a bad decision in the past and ended up with a "F-bomb" on their record (who are otherwise good people who just want to be productive and useful). I have a 10 year old (non-violent) felony drug offense that haunts my every move to this day,

    I have no one to blame but myself, I freely acknowledge this, but it's frustrating because before the addiction, I had 20 years of decorated public service that just doesn't seem to matter anymore, and the subsequent 10 years of success don't seem to matter either - all that matters is that one (large) blip on a piece of paper.

    We sit and wonder what is going wrong in our society - why so many people are acting so badly and the answer is right in front of our eyes. We (as a nation and a culture) treat people as if they are disposable. Well, people tend to live up (or down) to whatever expectation we set for them. If we keep making more "disposable" people, they will have no choice but to act out. Sad thing is, I probably couldn't even move to Colorado and open up a legal cannabis dispensary, because of my record - even the drug trade wouldn't touch me. I now sit in a job I despise, working for people who don't value me (because of my record), for far less than I'm worth and my family wonders why I'm clinically depressed.

  • American Veteran Patroit||

    Two things strike me as a retired 30-year corporate HR Manager - 1st - reflecting back on all the applicants with any criminal record(s), the begging was astronomical and frankly quite impressive. However, corporate rules at the time precluded anyone with a felony or higher conviction due to our high-value inventory and strict insurance mandates. 2nd - I spent nearly 15-years as a Director for a Workforce Investment Board with the focus was getting individuals in all employment spectrums back into meaningful permanent, stable job security. That proved extremely difficult as the system of government handouts exceeded well beyond one's ability to survive as welfare was more lucrative with seriously flawed checks and balances. This achieved the following, more liberal votes for politicians and depletion of funds for more important items beginning with the maintenance of infrastructure. Robbing of Peter to pay Paul with overload empty platitudes solved absolutely nothing regardless how they machinated the numbers.

    Two things require immediate changing, rebuilding of the family unit that stability is the reason this country won two major world wars. The other is very simple; the government is not a panacea for all the ills created by weak family units and the weak broken education system. Return to obligations and stewardship, and we'll dump people out of the prison system fast.

  • Specom||

    Oh bullshit. Able bodied men haven't been able to collect welfare for 30 years at least.

  • swampwiz||

    I don't think the family can be reconstructed. The female hypergamy instinct, that used to be kept in check by shame of non-chastity, leaving marriage as the only honorable way to do nature's most pleasurable activity, has been unleashed. and there is no putting that genie back in the bottle, at least by folks who aren't religious fundamentalists.

  • Longtobefree||

    Here you go - no problem about prison backgrounds on a laptop.

  • Longtobefree||

    If it is safe to let them out of jail / prison, it is safe to erase the records.
    If it is not safe to erase the records, do not let them out.

    Or

    Add freed prisoners to the list of "protected classes". No discrimination allowed.

  • swampwiz||

    Of course, these restrictionist rules serve the purpose of the Political Class to say that they are "getting tough on crime", painting anyone who believes in the value of rehabilitation as the 2nd coming of Dukakis. Never mind that they save on future incarceration costs. Why do that anyway? The corrections industry likes to sell their hotel rooms.

    That said, the author makes the same mistake that a lot of conservatives do in that they somehow think that just because there is another warm body in the labor force, that the economy will put that body to work. The fact is that all happens with an extra body is typically one more worker vying for work. Concerning former inmates, the fact is that having to check the "have you ever been convicted" box puts the applicant at the bottom of the pile; during the Clintonian economy of the late '90s, this was much less of a problem as employers were desperate; those days will never return.

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