Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · May 3, 2019

Tallahassee, Fla.—Under a criminal-justice omnibus bill (HB 7125) passed by the Florida Legislature today, Florida may soon make it easier for people with criminal records to find work. Thanks to an amendment added by Sen. Jeff Brandes that is similar to his Fresh Start bill (SB 334), the omnibus bill addresses how occupational licensing blocks upward mobility and re-entry for people with criminal records. The bill now heads to the governor.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), which has successfully challenged occupational licensing laws across the country and advocates for legislative reform, supported Sen. Brandes’ bill and its House companion bill sponsored by Rep. Scott Plakon.

“When you take away someone’s ability to earn a lawful living, the risk of recidivism increases. Clearing the way for people to earn an honest living is one of the best ways to prevent recently released individuals from re-offending,” said Justin Pearson, managing attorney of the IJ Florida Office, who testified during the committee process. “But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work. Today, Florida took an important step toward increasing opportunity and reducing crime.”

The changes expressly apply to licenses for barbers, cosmetologists, cosmetologist specialists and construction contractors, which, according to a legislative analysis, account for nearly 350,000 active licenses combined in Florida. The changes also apply to any other occupational licenses for occupations in which training is offered to inmates as vocational training or through an industry certification program. Should the bill become law, Florida will join the 21 states that have eased or eliminated licensing barriers for ex-offenders since 2015.

If enacted, the bill would:

  • Prevent licensing boards from disqualifying applicants based on crimes older than five years unless they are violent or sexual offenses;
  • Allow people to apply for a license while still in prison or under supervision, making it easier for them to re-enter society;
  • Allow applicants who are still in prison or under supervision to appear at licensing hearings by teleconference or videoconference;
  • Allow people to obtain a determination as to whether their criminal record would prevent them from obtaining a license prior to going through the expensive and lengthy license application process; and
  • Require boards to publish a list of all crimes that were the basis for denial of a license application during the past two years.

In 2016, over 31,000 prisoners were released in Florida. But according to the National Employment Law Project, the state has 800 disqualifications for a criminal record in state occupational licensing laws, many of which do little to protect public safety. A recent study by the James Madison Institute estimated that re-arrest rates in Florida could fall by 16 percent if the state reduced the occupations it licenses by 25 percent.

In Pennsylvania, IJ is currently suing the Cosmetology Board on behalf of two women denied licenses based on an arbitrary provision that allows the board to reject applicants for years-old criminal convictions. Both women completed beauty school at a cost of thousands of dollars but were barred from taking the exam to earn their license.