Matthew Prensky
Matthew Prensky · May 28, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) sent a letter to the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (NCSBDE), calling on them to allow individuals with past criminal convictions—like Sarah Smith—to become licensed dental hygienists. Earlier this year, the Board denied Sarah’s application for licensure solely because of three nearly decade-old drug possession convictions. That decision violates both state law and Sarah’s constitutional rights. Sarah has worked hard to give herself a fresh start, but NCSBDE is holding her past against her.

“Sarah has already proved herself as a dental hygienist in other states, with glowing recommendations from her colleagues and former employers. But the board keeps putting up barriers to her working in North Carolina,” said Erica Smith Ewing, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Meanwhile, the state is struggling with a severe shortage of dental hygienists and other health care professions. Discriminating against those with old criminal records is a major contributor to those shortages.” 

In Sarah’s previous life—a life before she went to dental school and started working as a dental hygienist in Idaho and Tennessee—Sarah struggled with drug addiction. Sarah was convicted of felony drug possession in 2014 and two misdemeanor drug possessions in 2015 because of her addiction. That’s when Sarah hit rock bottom, and after spending 30 days in jail, she checked into a rehab program. Eight years later Sarah has maintained her sobriety and is now trying to become a licensed dental hygienist in North Carolina. She has already worked as a licensed dental hygienist in Idaho and Tennessee for the last five years, with glowing reviews from her former colleagues and employers. 

But after applying for a license from North Carolina, NCSBDE told Sarah in February that she wasn’t eligible, solely because of her long-past criminal record. Instead, Sarah was only able to receive a provisional license, which she obtained in April. Provisional licenses only last for one year though, meaning if Sarah wants to continue working at her current job, she’ll have to obtain full licensure by paying $1,275 and passing an exam as if she’s never worked as a licensed dental hygienist before. 

There’s no reason why Sarah’s drug convictions should prevent her from receiving a license. Dental hygienists have no power to prescribe drugs and have no access to prescription strength drugs. More importantly, denying Sarah’s license violates North Carolina law, and it’s unconstitutional. The North Carolina Legislature reformed state law in 2019 to bar state boards from denying someone a license based on their criminal history alone. Additionally, state and federal courts across the country have repeatedly recognized that it’s unconstitutional to restrict a person’s right to work based on old criminal convictions. 

IJ has a long history of fighting to protect the right to earn an honest living, including restrictions that prevent hard-working Americans from job opportunities simply because of old mistakes they made years ago. As part of this work, IJ successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law that required individuals to prove their own “good moral character” before they could become cosmetologists, and a USDA policy that permanently banned food retailers from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they committed any offense related to alcohol, drugs, or firearms.