November 24, 2020

Thanks to a one-two punch this summer, some of the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians can now exercise their right to earn an honest living.

Two years ago, IJ launched our first “fresh start” case—a challenge to a law that unfairly bars people from working because of their criminal histories. We represented two Philadelphia-area women, Courtney Haveman and Amanda Spillane. Although both had criminal records resulting from problems with substance abuse years earlier, both had also put their pasts behind them. Courtney and Amanda were sober, steadfast, and ready to start their careers. Courtney wanted to help support her son, and Amanda wanted more than a fast-food job paying so little that she had to rely on food stamps.

Both decided to become estheticians, a kind of cosmetologist who focuses on skin care. They spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars at beauty school, and they even lined up jobs at salons. But when they applied for licenses, Pennsylvania rejected them under an old “good moral character” law. Their criminal histories (which have nothing to do with cosmetology) meant they couldn’t prove they were good enough people to work in skin care. And they weren’t alone. Our lawsuit revealed that the commonwealth’s character screenings routinely interrogated cosmetology applicants with criminal histories, dredging up testimony about abusive past boyfriends, miscarriages, and even suicide attempts.

Bizarrely, however, there was no character requirement for any other salon employee—not the receptionists handling cash and not the barbers sharpening their straight razors. In fact, Courtney herself ended up working in a salon during the lawsuit as a shampooist. If it was safe for her to wash hair without a character interrogation, it was clearly also safe for her to tweeze eyebrows. We used these facts to argue that the good moral character law’s scope was so irrational that it violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. And we won.

After almost two years of hard-fought litigation, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agreed with IJ’s arguments, calling it “absurd” that a cosmetologist would have to prove good character while a barber with the same criminal record would not. The court struck down the requirement statewide, and the commonwealth itself admitted the decision was correct.

And that’s not all the good news. Pennsylvania also passed a new licensing law, inspired in part by IJ’s lawsuit. That law repeals the dozens of other good moral character requirements remaining in other licenses. That means sweeping change in the Keystone State.

Still, there’s more to be done. There are tens of thousands of other criminal-history-based laws that limit people’s ability to provide for themselves. And there is a growing consensus that these harsh laws simply don’t work. IJ is continuing the fight in California, and, thanks to your support, we’ll keep on fighting. There are lots of people like Courtney and Amanda, and they, too, deserve a fresh start at earning an honest living.

Andrew Ward is an IJ attorney.

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