By Rebecca Pirius
Want to become a barber or cosmetologist? You need a license in every state. Have a criminal record? In many states it's that much harder.
A prior conviction is often a barrier to licensure and, thus, employment. Considering that 1 in 3 adults has a criminal record and 1 in 4 occupations requires a license, such barriers can pose significant challenges for states that want to encourage rehabilitation and for ex-offenders who want to earn a living.
Delaware and Indiana are the latest states to reduce those barriers.
Earlier this month, Delaware Governor John Carney (D) signed legislation that removes roadblocks faced by persons with criminal histories who want to pursue an occupation in cosmetology, barbering, electrology, nail technology or aesthetics.
“After an individual has paid his or her debt to society, all they want is to be able to begin to rebuild their lives. Stable employment and training opportunities are critical to that rehabilitation. This legislation removes barriers so that individuals will not be defined by their past,” said Representative J.J. Johnson (D), the bill's primary sponsor.
The new Delaware law eases licensing burdens for ex-offenders in several ways.
- It prohibits the licensing authority from considering a conviction that is more than 10 years old, so long as an applicant has maintained a clean record.
- It reduces the waiting period—from 5 years to 2 or 3 years—after which, an applicant can petition for a felony conviction waiver.
- It allows applicants to petition for waivers in between board meetings. (By statute, the board must grant waivers and it is only required to meet quarterly.)
These policy changes follow recommendations made in 2016 by the Delaware Professional Licensing Review Committee, which was established by executive order of then-Governor Jack Markell. The committee’s final report also encouraged every licensing board to review and narrow its list of disqualifying crimes.
Another state making sweeping reforms is Indiana. Last week, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb (R) signed a bill that reduces licensing barriers—across numerous boards—for persons with criminal histories. The bill, sponsored by Representative Dale DeVon (R), requires all licensing boards (under title 25) to revise any licensing requirements that look at an applicant’s criminal history. By this November, every board must:
- Explicitly list all disqualifying crimes.
- Eliminate any vague terms that allow the board unfettered discretion in licensing decisions, such as “moral turpitude” or “good character.”
- Exclude, from consideration, any arrest records not resulting in a conviction.
Like Delaware’s new law, prior convictions will not impair a Hoosier’s chance of licensure forever. Under the Indiana law, the period of disqualification for an applicant who maintains a clean record is five years, unless the offense was a crime of violence or a sex offense. Moreover, an applicant who has a prior conviction for a disqualifying crime will be allowed an opportunity to show evidence of rehabilitation and mitigating factors.
Delaware and Indiana are not the only states looking at this issue. Over the past few years, occupational licensing reform has become a bipartisan, national effort. The federal government has also joined the effort—with support coming from both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Under a U.S. Department of Labor grant, a three-year project will assist states improve their understanding of policies and best practices related to occupational licensing. Between 2017 and 2019, the project brings together 11 states to participate in the Occupational Licensing Learning Consortium. The 11 states are Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, Utah and Wisconsin.
Legislative action is already underway nationwide. Last year, Arizona, Connecticut and Illinois enacted legislation to reduce licensing barriers for persons with criminal histories. Currently, four states—Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Tennessee—have bills pending that would remove roadblocks for this population and help them become productive citizens.
Nebraska Senator Laura Ebke (NP), sponsor of LB 299, summed it up: “The goal is to make it easier for people to work hard and make a living.”
Rebecca Pirius specializes in ex-offender employment laws for NCSL.