Opinion: Licensing reforms can lower hiring hurdles for workers with criminal records

Georgia’s State Capitol in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Georgia’s State Capitol in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

Nearly 83 percent of Georgia prisoners will eventually be released back into the community. Despite ample evidence that access to gainful employment is critical to reentry, individuals with criminal records face high barriers to finding a job. Georgia lawmakers now have an opportunity to help returning citizens remain productive members of society by eliminating unnecessary regulatory hurdles.

From a policy perspective, reforms that reduce barriers to employment for individuals with criminal backgrounds should be considered “low-hanging fruit” in the effort to reduce mass incarceration and the high rate of recidivism. One such barrier, occupational licensing, is particularly ripe for reform.

An occupational license is essentially a government-issued stamp of approval to enter into certain regulated occupations. In the 1950s, just five percent of workers required a license to do their job. Today, nearly 1 in 7 workers in Georgia hold an occupational license. Georgia has licensing requirements for over 40 occupations, including barbers, nurses, makeup artists, athletic trainers and construction contractors.

Opening up employment opportunities to individuals with criminal backgrounds could help alleviate ongoing labor shortages in the construction and healthcare industries. Many of Georgia’s most in-demand trade workers – such as plumbers, electricians and general contractors –– require a license. The state also places restrictions on who can work in licensed long-term care facilities.

Of course, there are some offenses that should preclude someone from getting a license ­­–– especially for occupations related to their record. For instance, someone who has been convicted of elder abuse should not be able to work with vulnerable populations.

But licensing boards lack consistent guidance for evaluating whether an applicant’s criminal background is related to the occupation. Likewise, prospective workers lack adequate information to determine if their background will result in their application being denied. Establishing clearer eligibility guidelines would help reduce this uncertainty. Georgia could join Florida, Texas and North Carolina in requiring licensing boards to post information on their websites about how applicants’ criminal backgrounds are evaluated.

A few Georgia licensing boards have pre-qualification processes that allow applicants to receive a determination as to whether their criminal history is disqualifying before investing in training and education. This practice should be expanded to every licensing board in the state and pre-qualification decisions should be binding as long as the applicant does not engage in any further criminal behavior.

When licensing boards do deny an applicant based on their criminal background, they should be required to provide a written explanation for their decision. Thirty-one other states already require licensing boards to provide written explanations for denials. Applicants should also be able to appeal denials through an administrative appeals process that doesn’t require a lawyer.

While accountability is essential, limiting employment opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds is counterproductive. Research on crime indicates that stable employment is a key element of effective reintegration. We should strive to empower all Georgians to earn a living and remain productive members of society.

State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, represents Georgia’s Senate District 17. Vittorio Nastasi is the director of criminal justice policy at Reason Foundation. Nastasi is also a Ph.D student at Florida State University’s Askew School of Public Policy.