IJ Leads the Fight for a Fresh Start
Earning an honest living is one of the best ways those convicted of crimes can successfully re-enter society. But nationwide, more than 15,000 laws prevent people with criminal records from pursuing their calling. And while IJ continues to challenge senseless barriers for people with criminal records in court (such as our defense of Joe Armstrong, described here), we are also aggressively lobbying statehouses for reform.
This year on the legislative front, we focused on eliminating one of the worst burdens for people with criminal records: the uncertainty of whether their criminal history will prevent them from getting an occupational license. For some, this uncertainty is enough to keep them from working toward a better life in a new occupation. But for others, the harm is even worse: Too often, people with criminal records are forced to invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in education and training before they even know whether their criminal history will foreclose their working in their chosen occupation. Those who are later denied a license can be left financially devastated. And with no hope of repaying their educational debt through honest work, it can be all too easy to slip back into a life of crime.
A straightforward solution to this problem is to create “predetermination” processes that allow people to get decisions from licensing boards about whether their criminal record would disqualify them from licensure before they invest their time and money in training for a new career. Nationwide, 22 states have already enacted predetermination processes. But not all of these laws are meaningful, and many states continue to lack any process whatsoever.
This year, we set out to change that. We supported the introduction and advancement of bills to create predetermination processes in seven states, helping bring lawmakers and groups from across the political spectrum together to show a compelling need for change. And in total, we were able to help change the law in three states: Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
These new laws finally give people with criminal records a fair shot at becoming licensed. For example, before Minnesota changed its law, the state lacked any predetermination process. Now people will have the ability to request binding decisions from boards and rely on these decisions to plan their careers.
In Oklahoma and Louisiana, in contrast, we focused on improving processes that already existed. Both states already had predetermination processes for people with criminal records, but the processes were weak. In Oklahoma, old convictions that had no bearing on the applicant’s ability to safely work could be used to bar people from becoming licensed. And Louisiana exempted more than a dozen boards from the state’s process and standards for reviewing records.
In both states, we were able to help legislators close those loopholes and create fairer processes for when boards consider the implications of a person’s criminal past. Importantly, these new laws also place reporting requirements on boards, which will create greater transparency moving forward.
People with criminal records who have paid their debts to society should have every opportunity to find meaningful work. As long as states continue to have arbitrary licensing restrictions that keep people from having a fresh start, IJ will maintain a full-court press to repeal the barriers that stand in their way.
Meagan Forbes serves as IJ legislative counsel.
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