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Job Licensing is an Impermeable Barrier to Some Former Felons

May 04, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

From interior designer to landscape architect, felons face job licensing restrictions

Felons in the United States face everyday barriers not experienced by most Americans. They endure restrictions on jury service, participating in elections, purchasing a firearm, accessing higher education, obtaining housing, and perhaps most importantly, acquiring the professional licenses and certifications often required for select career paths in the United States.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute last year compiled a list of dozens of jobs and job categories in which convicted felons faced restrictions, from asbestos abatement contractors and land surveyors to speech pathologists and social workers.

The number of jobs that require a license or certification has exploded since the 1950s, according to a study on criminal justice reform efforts in Oklahoma published last year by the University of Tulsa. Oklahoma excessively regulates occupational licenses, the report adds, even where there aren’t major public safety concerns with the underlying occupation.

The requirements are also inconsistent from one occupation to the next. The report says that cosmetologists, for example, endure 10 times the number of requirements faced by emergency medical technicians.

“There is no centralized oversight process for regulating occupational licensing boards,” according to the report, “so burdensome licensing requirements and restrictive blanket bans can go unchecked. It is nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated job seekers to compete in an economy that increasingly demands highly skilled, credentialed workers.”

So what jobs come with restrictions for felons in Oklahoma? You might be surprised. Even the state application to become a licensed landscape architect or interior designer instructs the applicant to provide details of what happened if he or she was convicted of a felony.

Want to join your family’s funeral or embalming business? According to the Rules of the Oklahoma Funeral Board, a felony conviction “may be grounds to deny the application.” Family towing or used car-repair business? A past felony could also be grounds for denial.

What if you became involved with an animal therapy program while behind bars and want to turn it into a veterinary career on the outside? Veterinarians and veterinary technicians can have their license or certificate summarily suspended as a result of a felony without a formal hearing.

Horse trainers and horse jockeys in Oklahoma face restrictions, too. So do midwives, nurses, and emergency medical technicians. So do teachers, school administrators, occupational therapists, nursing home administrators, social workers, and truck-driving instructors. Even becoming a drug and alcohol counselor is problematic.

To be sure, some of these restrictions for former felons eased somewhat last year when Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the Fresh Start Act, which among other things requires professional and employment boards to list specifically what felonies could lead to license or certification denial. It also removes the blanket requirement that license holders in any profession be “of good moral character or have not been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.”

“Licensing boards will be allowed to deny licenses to individuals who have committed specific crimes – each board will have to publish a list of disqualifying offenses – but that’s a huge improvement over the so-called ‘blanket bans’ that mostly serve to exclude individuals from jobs they would otherwise be qualified to do,” the online site Reason wrote about the bill.

The Sooner State is one of the most punitive on earth, which has resulted in a state prison system that is bursting at the seams and risks even being taken over by the federal government.

Voters and lawmakers in recent years have sought to remedy this in part by expanding the number of people who are eligible to have their criminal histories expunged in certain circumstances.

“Oklahoma continues to punish ex-felons long after they have paid their debt to society,” the Oklahoma Policy Institute wrote last year. “We put up so many obstacles that it can be extremely difficult just to survive out of prison without returning to crime.”

The institute adds that even if there aren’t formal restrictions on certain job categories, employers may simply choose to screen out any applicant with a felony record, often without knowing whether the underlying crimes were nonviolent drug offenses.

Even now, employers can still choose to turn away an applicant later after discovering a felony, but at least the applicant has been given a greater opportunity to prove themselves at the outset of an application.

A national study in 2018 by the Institute of Justice on occupational licenses found that while license and certification boards improve the quality of services for consumers and protect them from fraud and unscrupulousness, they also control the entry and exit of people in select professions and wield significant power as a result. An unintended consequence is to exclude those with felony convictions who may otherwise be perfectly suited for the job.

“Unnecessarily burdensome licensing requirements that shut people out of the occupation of their choice may mean that unemployment is higher than it would otherwise be or that more people are working in jobs that are a mismatch for their talents and skills—in economic terms, a misallocation of their human capital,” the Institute of Justice determined.

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