When Lester Young left prison after serving 22 years, he was eager to find a job and leave his criminal record behind him. “My first couple of weeks after prison, I dealt with the reality of being continuously denied jobs because of my felony conviction,” Young, 55, said. “I realized quickly that society isn’t welcoming individuals who served time back into the workforce, and definitely is not receptive to those who desire seeking some occupational licensing skill set.”
After striking out in job interviews numerous times, Young decided to pursue becoming a licensed home inspector — something he thought would give him “a sense of freedom.” After spending thousands of dollars on application fees and a class to prepare for the state board exam, he discovered the day of the test that his felony record disqualified him from getting a license.
He pointed out, “My becoming a licensed home inspector did not jeopardize our community, and it makes little sense. When you give a person the opportunity to earn a living, they’re less likely to reoffend because now they have some financial stability and responsibility.”
Young’s story is typical of the barriers people with a criminal conviction face across the country, and occupational licensing laws are just one of the many policies that create structural barriers to work for those with a criminal record. Even after completing time in prison, serving supervision terms, and paying fines and fees, a criminal history can prevent a person from obtaining a license to perform jobs ranging from cutting hair to providing health care. Young’s experience has inspired him to become an advocate for hiring people with felony convictions. He has helped pass “Ban the Box” policies in eight South Carolina municipalities and counties.
President Biden has declared April Second Chance Month, founded in 2017 by the nonprofit Prison Fellowship to raise awareness about the many hardships people with a criminal conviction face when they leave prison. Over 700 organizations are part of the month-long focus on ensuring our criminal justice system provides a pathway to redemption and rehabilitation for people who were formerly incarcerated.
Fair Chance Licensing
To accelerate much-needed reforms, last year the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) launched the Fair Chance Licensing Project to develop a playbook for reform and support states in expanding eligibility for occupational licenses. Today, nearly one in four U.S. jobs requires an occupational license. Licensing laws require workers to undergo training, testing, and education — along with paying fees — before starting a job in their field. Many of those laws also exclude granting licenses to those with a criminal record.
There is growing momentum, however, to reform this practice. In the past decade, CSG reports that 44 states have enacted some form of fair chance licensing laws that reduce barriers to occupational licenses for those with a criminal record. But many states still lack comprehensive laws that ensure licensing outcomes will be fairer, more consistent, and more transparent — which is why CSG developed a map of 13 key fair chance licensing best practices to guide reform.
Number of states that have enacted some form of fair chance licensing laws
Josh Gaines, CSG’s project manager for corrections and reentry, says that one of the project’s main goals is to educate lawmakers and licensing boards on best practices that give people a second chance while maintaining public safety. “It’s very rare that a lawmaker says, ‘I don’t want people who have been through the justice system to have licenses, they’re dangerous,’” said Gaines. “Almost everyone wants to get people with a criminal record back to work, but they just want it to be done safely.”
Economic Collateral Damage
In order to get a license, individuals often must commit to making upfront investments of money and time preparing for a licensing exam before their criminal record can be considered by a licensing board that might reject them.
After spending four years in prison, Nick Aponte found a job in real estate just two days after his release, but his dream was to become a nurse. While applying to nursing school, Aponte checked a box on the application form for those convicted of a felony. “The program told me that it was likely that I could complete my nursing education but wouldn’t be approved by the nursing board because of my conviction,” Aponte said. “I couldn’t take the chance of this doing that.” Only years later did he return to his nursing dream. After completing his education and spending months collecting support letters and the endorsement of his probation officer, he is currently waiting for a decision from Florida’s licensing board on his application.
“There’s huge losses to the workforce by excluding all of these people with criminal history or relegating them to positions where they’re not fully able to move up or to exploit their talents and reap those rewards,” Gaines said.
With job openings at record highs, Young noted that now is the perfect moment for companies and legislators to change how people with criminal records are considered during hiring. “It’s time for us to really reevaluate the walls we throw up that exclude people with records from working because denying them does not make our society any safer,” he said.
A More Rational Approach
Rudy Carey spent decades grappling with drug and alcohol addiction, which led to a series of periods in prison. When he got out in 2007, his probation officer helped him enter an inpatient rehabilitation program. Carey decided to dedicate his life to helping those who face the same struggles he did by training to be a substance abuse counselor. After completing 200 credit hours of coursework, he landed his dream job at a treatment facility in Fredricksburg, Virginia.
“By all accounts, I did really fantastic work there for five years. It was my dream job, and I was doing really, really well at it. One year, I won the Counselor of the Year award,” Carey said.
In 2018, Carey’s facility was bought out by another company. After reviewing Virginia law barring any person convicted of an assault and battery conviction from “direct care” positions, the new employer laid Carey off.
“He was devastated,” said Carey’s attorney from the Institute for Justice (IJ), Josh Greenberg. “He had been doing this excellent work, his clients loved him, and he helped a lot of people. But there was nothing that his employer could do. There is nothing that Rudy could do.”
In September of last year, IJ filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the law, arguing that barring Carey from his counseling work violates the due process and equal protection clauses under the 14th Amendment. Barring an eminently capable counselor like Carey is fundamentally irrational, the lawsuit argues, because it lacks a rational basis for discrimination and provides little public safety benefits.
If we’re allowed to have a second chance, if we’re allowed to return to society, why are we not being provided the tools in order to succeed?Nick Aponte
A better policy, Greenberg argues, is to evaluate each person on an individual basis. “Before denying someone a license or a job, look to what their actual criminal history is, to their degree of rehabilitation, and to the circumstances of their actual offense, not just the category of the events,” he said. After determining whether someone has turned their life around, he says, regulators should look to what the actual requirements of the job or the license in question and determine whether that person would pose some kind of danger or some kind of problem to people receiving services or to general public at large.
“If we’re allowed to have a second chance, if we’re allowed to return to society, why are we not being provided the tools in order to succeed?” reflected Aponte. “What I did was wrong, and I’ve paid for that. But I need to move forward with my career.”