Locked Out of Job Opportunities

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in world, and while analysis typically focuses on the cost of incarceration, attention is starting to shift to the greater costs to society. Each year about 650,000 former inmates are released and must attempt to rejoin society. For many, the first step, finding a job, is prevented by occupational licensing laws.

Occupational licensing laws can be thought of as a permission slip required by the government before an individual can work. Licensing laws effect nearly 30 percent of workers, many of which are in low- and middle-income occupations. These laws limit the supply of professionals, ostensibly to prevent low quality professionals from harming consumers. They contain numerous requirements like education and training requirements, exams, fees, and frequently “good moral character” clauses. Often, good moral character provisions are used to ban all former convicts from the ability to legally participate in the licensed occupation.

Back in May, Oklahoma passed a piece of legislation regarding good moral character provisions which can serve as a model for other states seeking to reform their criminal justice systems. It ends the ability licensing boards to ban all applicants with a criminal record, requiring them to list specific, relevant crimes. The new law is slated to take effect in November and enjoyed wide bipartisan support in the legislature. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country, so good moral character clauses present a barrier to a large portion of their population just trying to legally work.

In addition to Oklahoma, several other states are also moving in the right direction. Michigan and Alabama are among the states considering similar legislation to remove barriers for former inmates. North Carolina is considering a somewhat weaker bill to make it easier for them find employment upon release. Recently, Delaware removed the blanket bans barring ex-offenders from obtaining a license for certain occupations.

All of these laws make it easier for ex-offenders to reenter society after their incarceration.

One of the most daunting challenges for former offenders reentering society is finding a job. The unemployment rate the first year after release among ex-convicts is around 60 percent, much higher than for the rest of society. The difficulty of finding stable, legal employment after release exacerbates the consequences of the initial crime.

Finding a job is imperative for former inmates, and it is an important step to reintegrating into and being a productive member of society. Without a job, former convicts are much more likely to reoffend. According to the Manhattan Institute, they are 20 percent less likely to reoffend if they find a job quickly after release. Recidivism is costly for society, both for the crime it must endure and for the cost of incarcerating inmates. Of course, it is also greatly detrimental for the convicts themselves. Ensuring that laws do not unnecessarily increase rates of recidivism should be a top priority.

Research has shown that occupational licensing laws are associated with higher recidivism rates. In a recent study, Steve Slivinski found that from 1997 to 2007 states with greater occupational licensing burdens saw their recidivism rate increase by 9 percent, while it fell for states with the lowest licensing burden by 2.5 percent. Because many licensing laws prohibit former felons from being able to obtain a license, after their release many are unable to obtain low to moderate income jobs, despite having the relevant education and experience. Without a steady job to keep them in society, they often return to crime.

It’s important to note that not all crimes should be forgotten or ignored when it comes to licensing requirements. Some crimes may have an obvious potential effect on the service offered or the safety of the consumer. For instance, a person convicted of embezzlement would not make for a good accountant. The same is true for a truck driver with a DUI or a school teacher convicted of child abuse. These are clear examples of crimes that could put consumers in harm’s way.

However, there are just as many cases where a conviction alone should not be disqualifying, considering that 95 percent of inmates are arrested for non-violent crimes. For instance, there is no reason why someone with non-violent drug possession or DUI should be unable to cut hair. In California, inmates are trained to fight fires, yet upon release are unable to obtain the required Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license to use that training.

Having each licensing board list specific crimes relevant to the tasks performed by the occupation will help end the blanket bans of former convicts that prevent large swaths of the population from being employable.

Removing these blanket bans preventing ex-convicts from the ability to work in licensed occupations is a bipartisan solution. With the highest prison population in the world, blanket bans of former convicts make it much more difficult for so many to rejoin society as functioning members. By eliminating them where appropriate, we can both help former convicts reenter society successfully, and help us all by moving toward a society with less crime.

Conor Norris is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Research Analyst with the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation (CSOR) at Saint Francis University. His areas of interest include occupational licensing and health care scope of practice laws, monetary policy, and long-run growth. Conor is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2018. He interned at the Cato Institute in 2017 in the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives. He loves reading good history books and bad puns and is still bitter that the Star Wars expanded universe is no longer cannon. Conor grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and after spending two years in Arlington, Virginia, he now lives in Altoona, PA.
Catalyst articles by Conor Norris