The effectiveness of licensing reforms passed by the General Assembly in 2019 are under test in a legal dispute between the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners and a dental hygienist who was denied her license credentials due to her decade-old criminal record.

Before attending dental school, Sarah Smith struggled with drug addiction and was a victim of domestic violence. She was convicted of felony drug possession in 2014 and two misdemeanors for drug possession in 2015. However, she turned her life around in rehabilitation and became licensed as a dental hygienist in Idaho and Tennessee. 

Living less than a mile across the border from North Carolina, Smith recently sought a license with the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners. According to the non-profit law firm Institute for Justice (IJ), the Board denied her eligibility in February on the basis of her criminal record. Although the Board predetermined that she was qualified for a license, officials said she did not qualify to apply for credentials because of her past, citing General Statute 90‑224.1. They said she could only apply for a provisional license or apply for licensure by exam. 

“In 2019, the North Carolina Legislature reformed its law to prevent exactly this type of denial based on criminal history,” Erica Smith Ewing, a senior attorney at IJ, wrote in a letter to the Board this week. “The Board cannot deny Ms. Smith’s license based on her criminal history alone.”

Smith is currently working part-time under a provisional license good for one year and at one clinic alone. She would like to pick up more hours at another clinic in June but is not permitted to do so with the provisional license. Additionally, the Board’s exam requirement means she would have to study for the ADEX exam, pay a $1,275 exam fee, and take off work to travel on a plane to the nearest test site.

The issue spotlights reforms made in the North Carolina General Assembly to help reformed ex-offenders find work and become productive citizens again. The updated law prohibits the Board from denying an application unless the applicant’s criminal conviction history is “directly related to the duties and responsibilities for the licensed occupation, or the conviction is for a crime that is violent or sexual in nature.”

Smith Ewing explained that the law is intended to give past convicts more opportunities and a fresh start while allowing employers to hire who they want to hire. She said that if the Board doesn’t do the right thing and give her the license, other options will be on the table.  

“We’re just hoping that North Carolina follows through on these reforms they worked so hard to pass,” she told the Carolina Journal. “We’re hoping that we could resolve this amicably and not have to consider going to court, but it’s certainly something that we’re going to have to if the board doesn’t do what they’re supposed to have already been doing.”

Jon Guze, a Senior Fellow in Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation, supported the licensing reform five years ago in a report that emphasized the large population impacted by blanket exclusions. The report noted that more than 25% of the working-age population in North Carolina have criminal records, and thousands more are convicted of crimes every year. 

“With the support of the John Locke Foundation, the law was changed in 2019,” said Guze. “It’s possible the Board will try to argue that Ms. Smith’s criminal history is directly related because dental hygienists have access to medical supplies. If it does so, I would expect Ms. Smith and the IJ attorneys to challenge that claim in court. I hope the Board doesn’t do that, however.”

Many states have enacted occupational licensing reforms to open up opportunities for qualified people with records, such as Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. The North Carolina legislation passed unanimously with bipartisan support. 

“Locke supported the change to the law because we believe in second chances and in making it easier for reformed ex-offenders to find work and become productive citizens. From IJ’s account of her life, it sounds as though Ms. Smith is exactly the kind of person the new law was intended to help,” Guze added.