News: CJ Exclusives

Bipartisan Freedom to Work bill would give former inmates a second chance to pursue careers

Republicans and Democrats rarely agree, but in North Carolina the two parties seem to have found some common ground in a bipartisan agreement, which comes at the crossroads of criminal justice reform and occupational licensing reform.

In North Carolina, and across the country, licensing boards have great leeway to deny an occupational license to people with criminal records. The statutes governing licensing boards often contain requirements that an applicant is of “good moral character” or hasn’t committed a crime of “moral turpitude.”

Lawmakers want to limit those sweeping prohibitions.

On May 3, the House unanimously passed House Bill 770, or the Freedom to Work bill. H.B. 770 clarifies how a licensing board can use someone’s criminal history. It allows people with criminal records to petition the board to determine whether their records would disqualify them from obtaining a license.

The Foundation for Government Accountability, a public policy organization focused on limiting government dependency, estimates 600,000 people leave prison each year, but more than 60% of them remain unemployed a year later. This is due in part to licensing restrictions, which can block ex-offenders from obtaining a license even if their crimes have nothing to do with the profession they’re pursuing.

Greg George, a senior fellow at FGA, said the number of licensed professions has dramatically increased over the years.

“So, right now, depending on which study you read, 25% to 30% of occupations require a license, which is up significantly from the 1950s [when the share] was around 5%,” George said.

Nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record, George said, and more people are encountering barriers to work.

“There’s a huge issue with incarcerated individuals coming out and not being able to find work, and if they do find work they’re limited to much lower pay or a part time gig,” George said. “So, it’s hard for them to ever break the poverty cycle and kind of come out of their former incarceration status and make a new life.”

About 40,000 people are in North Carolina prisons, and about 1.6 million North Carolinians have criminal records. Experts say employment is critical in keeping ex-offenders from returning to prison. The N.C. Second Chance Alliance says North Carolina’s three-year recidivism rate is about 40%.

Under H.B. 770, licensing boards would be required to consider Certificates of Relief favorably. A Certificate of Relief is a court order that can provide an ex-offender relief from some civil disqualifications. A criminal record can serve as an automatic disqualification when it comes to occupational licensing, but a Certificate of Relief would allow licensing boards more discretion in granting licenses.

After passing the House, H.B. 770 goes to the Senate, where a similar bill takes aim at the issue. Senate Bill 305 directs licensing boards to not automatically disqualify someone from obtaining a license just because of a criminal conviction. The Senate bill also limits certain boards to consider only felony offenses and not misdemeanors when deciding whether to reject an applicant.

The Freedom to Work bill, like similar legislation, doesn’t prevent licensing boards from disqualifying people with criminal records. But it does require licensing boards to find “clear and convincing evidence that the applicant’s criminal history is directly related to the duties and responsibilities for the licensed occupation.”

Too often, George said, licensing boards reject people because of an old conviction unrelated to the license they’re trying to pursue. The conviction may be decades old.

“We found that the data shows [roughly] three to four years after release, if the individual who was formerly incarcerated has not committed a crime or committed a new crime within that time frame, they are no more likely to do so than an average individual,” George said.