Occupational Licensing Reform Could Help Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison

This piece originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

The criminal justice system in the United States is often described as a revolving door –– with good cause. According to a report from the Florida Department of Corrections, more than 60 percent of prisoners released in Florida are re-arrested within three years of release.

The offenses with the highest rates of recidivism in Florida are burglary and robbery, which suggests that financial security is a major factor in the decision to return to criminal behavior. Florida is leading the way in making it easier for former criminal offenders to secure gainful employment, but there is still progress to be made.

In a recent study published by the James Madison Institute, Sam Staley and I found that reducing the burden of licensing requirements in Florida could go a long way toward keeping former offenders out of prison. This past legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed several reforms to reduce the employment barriers imposed on former offenders by licensing requirements. Eleven other states have passed similar reforms, but some went further than Florida’s legislation.

Typical requirements to obtain a license include minimum education, training, examinations and fees, but requirements vary widely by state. Drywall installation contractors, for example, are not licensed in 21 states, but Florida requires nearly 1,200 hours of training before someone can sit for an exam. Barbers in Florida are required to complete more than 1,000 hours of training, pass a written exam, and pay $150 in fees. According to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, Florida has the fifth most burdensome licensing requirements in the nation.

Some policies explicitly prohibit the licensure of former criminals. According to labor relations attorney Annie Zhang, 841 regulatory policies across the United States allow former offenders to be denied a license solely on the basis of their past criminal behavior and 1,814 require good moral character. The ambiguity of many licensing policies leaves determinations of a candidate’s character at the discretion of state licensing boards, a substantial burden for someone who has served time in prison.

The recent reforms in Florida generally prohibit licensing boards from denying applications on the sole basis of the applicants’ criminal history and prevent boards from considering offenses committed more than five years prior to application. However, these reforms do not apply to sexual predator crimes or forcible felonies. Burglary and robbery are considered forcible felonies, so the reforms may be limited in their effects on recidivism. Moreover, licensing boards are still allowed to consider full criminal histories in assessing an applicant’s moral character.

The legislation also did not alter the required education, training and fees to obtain licenses. These requirements impose substantial burdens on low-income individuals and former criminal offenders.

This recent effort is certainly a step in the right direction and deserves to be applauded, but it should not be the end of licensing reform in the Sunshine State.

Vittorio Nastasi

Vittorio Nastasi is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation and holds a B.S. in economics and political science from Florida State University. 

The feature image is from Kiplinger.com.

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