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Protecting the Opportunity to Start Over

IJ Challenges Pennsylvania Licensing Law That Blocks Opportunities for Ex-Offenders

IJ is always looking for new ways to spread liberty and fight government abuse. Nearly a decade ago, that led to the first of many IJ cases challenging civil forfeiture laws. Four years ago, we began our campaign against cities’ abusive fines and fees schemes. And this past December, we launched our first lawsuit on behalf of people denied the right to earn an honest living because of past mistakes.

In 2014, Amanda Spillane was getting her life back on track. She’d gotten hooked on drugs as a teenager, committed crimes to fund her addiction, and landed in prison for two years. When she got out, she was determined to earn her place in the world. For years, she got up before dawn to work the morning shift at a fast food restaurant. She spent her nights at beauty school so she could get off food stamps and have a career supporting herself. She even had a job offer at a salon.

Requiring cosmetologists to prove that they’re good people doesn’t protect the public. If anything, social science indicates that making it harder to get a license to work leads to more crime.

Most people would see this as Amanda’s second chance. But the Pennsylvania Cosmetology Board still saw a criminal. Amanda was shocked when the Board told her that, because of her record, she had to prove she had “good moral character” before she could get a cosmetology license. So Amanda and her family drove two hours to a hearing where she had to prove to the government that she is a good person. She talked about getting clean. Her dad testified that she had turned her life around. She presented character letters, a performance review from work, and certificates from courses she had taken in prison. But it wasn’t enough. The Board rejected her, leaving Amanda with nothing to show for the year and thousands of dollars she’d spent on school.

This “good moral character” law is just one more example of the ways that arbitrary and burdensome occupational licensing hurts people most in need of an opportunity to climb the economic ladder. Requiring cosmetologists to prove that they’re good people doesn’t protect the public. If anything, social science indicates that making it harder to get a license to work leads to more crime.

Nationwide, there are about 30,000 “collateral consequence” laws like this one—laws that limit people’s right to work even after they have paid their debts to society.

That’s why IJ teamed up with Amanda and another woman like her to take on the Cosmetology Board in court. It makes no sense to deny people the right to work because of criminal convictions that have nothing to do with their desired occupation. In fact, barbershops in Pennsylvania have gotten along fine without a “good moral character” requirement. And if you don’t need “good moral character” to shave hair, why would you to curl it?

Nationwide, there are about 30,000 “collateral consequence” laws like this one—laws that limit people’s right to work even after they have paid their debts to society. There is also a growing consensus that harsh laws like this aren’t working. It doesn’t make sense to drag down people who are trying to pull themselves up. Second chances are better than scarlet letters. IJ and our clients won’t rest until we establish that everyone—criminal record or not—has the right to earn an honest living.

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