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Barred from Working: People with Criminal Records Are Unfairly Denied Licenses to Work

New Nationwide Report Offers the Most Comprehensive Look at the Occupational Licensing Barriers Facing Ex-Offenders

Arlington, Va.—Even as states debate opening the economy back up, millions of Americans with criminal records are still locked out of the job market. Today, nearly one in five workers needs a license to work, while one in three Americans has a criminal record of some kind.

Providing the most in-depth and up-to-date look at this intersection between occupational licensing and the criminal-justice system, a new report from the Institute for Justice (IJ), Barred from Working, analyzes and grades the legal protections offered to ex-offenders who apply for licenses to work.

Many state laws fail to make the grade: just nine states received a B- or better. Indiana ranked as the best state in the nation, earning the report’s only A grade. Meanwhile, six states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont—all tied for dead last due to their utter lack of protections for former felons seeking licenses.

“An honest living is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work,” said IJ Legislative Analyst Nick Sibilla, who authored the report. “Undoubtedly, some license restrictions make sense: No one wants child molesters working in daycare centers or school bus drivers with DUIs. But as this report shows, many licensing barriers have little basis in common sense or public safety and unfairly deny a fresh start to countless Americans.”

Grading all 50 states and the District of Columbia across 10 different criteria, Barred from Working identifies numerous methods that states use to block licenses to otherwise qualified individuals:

  • Nine states let boards disqualify applicants on the basis of any felony, even if it’s completely unrelated to the job at hand.
  • In 21 states, boards are free to deny licenses without ever considering whether an applicant has been rehabilitated.
  • In more than 30 states, applicants with criminal convictions can be denied licenses based on their perceived “good moral character” or “moral turpitude,” vague terms that let boards act capriciously. For instance, IJ is currently challenging a Pennsylvania law that requires “good moral character” for licensed cosmetologists, but not for licensed barbers.
  • Boards in 34 states can disqualify applicants for past arrests that didn’t result in a conviction, a practice that subverts the presumption of innocence.
  • Ex-offenders also face a staggering lack of due process during the application process. In 12 states, applicants have no guaranteed right to appeal a board’s decision, nor are boards required to issue their decisions in writing. And just two states—Indiana and Mississippi—expressly require licensing boards to bear the burden of proof when considering if an applicant’s criminal record is “directly related” to the license at hand.

Barred from Working is the latest salvo in IJ’s fight for second chances. On Friday, IJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dario Gurrola, who first fought fires at a juvenile-detention fire camp in California, but can’t work as a full-time firefighter because of his criminal record. Last month, IJ submitted comments to the Small Business Administration, urging that it drop criteria that unfairly excluded many entrepreneurs with criminal records from Covid-19 loan relief; some of those rules have since been loosened.

IJ has also developed model legislation to eliminate licensing barriers for ex-offenders and helped secure recent reforms in Arizona, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Idaho, and Utah. Nationwide, 30 states have enacted reforms since 2015, with further reforms pending in six states.

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