By Zach Herman
Legislation pending in Mississippi aims to give ex-offenders a better chance at a new beginning.
If enacted, HB 1284 will prohibit licensing boards from using blanket bans and good moral character policies to deny ex-offenders an occupational license.
In many states, formerly incarcerated people face automatic ineligibility or severe difficulty obtaining a license to work in certain professions due to “good moral character” clauses and “blanket bans” in state occupational licensing statutes.
Statutory language requiring “good-character” or “good moral character” provisions often grants licensing boards broad discretion to deny occupational licensing applications due to an applicant’s criminal history, including convictions for minor offenses and sometimes even arrests that never led to a conviction.
Critics of these blanket bans claim they often fail to account for the nature of the crime, rehabilitation of the offender, and time passed since the offense and unnecessarily exclude strong applicants.
The frequent unreliability of fingerprint checks also plagues the blanket bans. Fifty-six percent of all fingerprint records processed by the states in 2016 were for licensing, employment and regulatory purposes and these records may include juvenile records, arrests without charges or convictions, and expunged or sealed records.
Research shows that gainful employment helps keep people with a criminal record from reentering the justice system. However, obtaining gainful employment, especially in a licensed profession, can be difficult for those with a criminal history.
Mississippi requires an occupational license for 40 different professions. These jobs exist across sectors including engineering, health care, construction, education, cosmetology, forestry and HVAC contractors. Studies show that upwards of a third of Mississippi’s population has a criminal record, making it hard for that significant segment of the population to work in licensed fields.
Under HB 1284, individuals applying for a license may also request a determination from the board on whether their criminal record will be disqualifying. The applicant can petition the board for this determination at any time (including before their application), and the board must inform the applicant within 30 days. If denied, the individual has the right to challenge the ruling with the burden of proof falling on the licensing board.
Licensing boards would have to use a "clear and convincing standard of proof" to deny someone a license based on a criminal conviction. This includes considering the relationship between the crime and the work of the licensed profession, time since conviction, nature and seriousness of the offense, and evidence of rehabilitation.
If passed, Mississippi would join several other states that have enacted laws making it easier for ex-offenders to receive occupational licenses.
In 2017 Arizona enacted legislation that provides provisional licenses to ex-offenders that last for a year. Connecticut passed legislation in 2017 prohibiting state and national background checks as a prerequisite for barbers, cosmetologists and hairdressers. Georgia passed a law in 2016 that requires its licensing boards to consider certain factors relating to felonies before rejecting a license.
Approximately 47 of Mississippi's top 100 most in-demand occupations for 2018 required a license. Easing restrictions on ex-offenders obtaining licenses has the potential to improve employment rates for Mississippi's most in-demand occupations.
As part of our work on occupational licensing, NCSL, in partnership with the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, published a special report on the impacts of occupational licensing and collateral consequences for people with criminal records. More information about occupational licensing can be found on our webpage.
Zach Herman is a research analyst in NCSL's Employment, Labor & Retirement Program.