If 2020 has been defined by anything other than the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the discussion of reforming the judicial system and the disproportionate impact it can have on minority communities. What shouldn’t be lost in that discussion is the need to help those who have served their time in prison find job opportunities and become self-sufficient.
In Washington state, lawmakers have imposed barriers that prevent those with a criminal record from finding good jobs. Occupational licenses, which are required for a large percentage of jobs in our state, make it difficult to get a job after serving time. Research by the Institute for Justice found that Washington and Louisiana require licenses for 77 of the 102 low- to moderate-income occupations — the most of any other state.
For example, anyone wanting to apply for a state license as a cosmetologist, manicurist, geologist or tattoo artist must attest that they have not “defaulted, or been convicted of, or entered a plea of no contest to a gross misdemeanor or felony crime” in the last five years, whether the offense was related to the job or not. Someone convicted of electronic data theft, for example, would be prevented from becoming a licensed geologist.
The state Legislature took a half-step toward ending these discriminatory restrictions earlier this year when the House voted unanimously to allow convicted felons to apply for occupational licenses as long as their conviction wasn’t related to the job they were applying for. The bipartisan bill, however, died in the Senate, where the leadership didn’t even give it a committee hearing.
Next year, Washington lawmakers need to take the next step and pass the proposal. If passed, the bill would provide opportunities for those who want to overcome their past and build a stable career they can be proud of.
Research by Arizona State University demonstrates why cutting licensing barriers is so important. ASU researcher Stephen Slivinski found that occupational licenses make it difficult for prisoners to find jobs when they are released and starting the process of being a contributing part of local communities. He noted that, “Successful entry into the labor force has been shown to greatly increase the chances that a [former] prisoner will not recidivate. Yet government-imposed barriers to reintegration into the labor force — particularly occupational licensing requirements — can be among the most pernicious barriers faced by ex-prisoners seeking to enter the workforce.” He calls removing occupational license barriers the “missing piece of criminal justice reform.”
Lawmakers in some states are taking notice. Illinois, where Democrats control the legislature, and Tennessee, which is strongly Republican, have both taken steps to remove licensing restrictions. Tennessee’s law says the state “ … shall not deny an application for a license, certificate, or registration, or refuse to renew a license, certificate, or registration, solely or in part due to a prior criminal conviction that does not directly relate to the applicable occupation, profession, business, or trade.”
This isn’t the only problem with occupational licenses. The best study on the discriminatory impact of licensing comes from the Obama administration, which noted, “Lower-income workers are less likely to be able to afford the tuition and lost wages associated with licensing’s educational requirements, closing the door to many licensed jobs for them.”
The inequity inherent in occupational licenses was made obvious this year when the state waived the bar exam requirement for law-school graduates during COVID-19 after the deans of several law schools wrote to the governor. That same favor, however, was not extended to low-income workers waiting to take tests for occupational licenses. They didn’t have the political connections to get the regulations waived like the lawyers did.
Addressing the hiring restrictions lawmakers impose on ex-criminals is an important step toward rectifying that unfairness. It would offer a path to hope and prosperity for many who have already been treated unfairly. As the Legislature considers criminal justice reform in 2021, it should remove these unfair obstacles for people who have served their time and then face too many new barriers as they look to steer their life in a new direction.