Public safety is the first and foremost responsibility of government. North Carolinians want their public officials to do what is required — pass laws, appropriate funds, administer courts and prisons — to protect our persons and property.
But we taxpayers also want our public officials to discharge these responsibilities at a reasonable cost. And we certainly don’t want other public policies to interfere with the protection of public safety.
Unfortunately, North Carolina currently has some policies working at cross purposes with each other. On the one hand, it is very much in the public interest to reduce the likelihood that convicts will return to a life of crime. On the other hand, well-meaning lawmakers and regulators have made it hard for North Carolinians with arrest records to enter some occupations — the argument being that they might endanger the consuming public.
No one would dispute there are some jobs that are ill suited for those who’ve served time in jail or prison. Would you hire a convict as a security guard or financial auditor? Perhaps not. But turning a prudential judgment into a state mandate and then applying it to many hundreds of occupations seems like overkill to me.
According to the National Employment Law Project, there are 641 different instances in North Carolina’s laws or regulations in which someone with a criminal record is disqualified from entering a licensed occupation. Only 10 other states impose more disqualifications, and only Florida exceeds North Carolina on this measure among the Southeastern states.
By comparison, South Carolina has 452 disqualifications. Are South Carolinians at a commensurately greater risk? Are our neighbors to the south just not as tough on crime as we are in North Carolina?
Surely not. South Carolina just imposes less red tape and fewer barriers to entry for people who want to change careers or move into the state to pursue economic opportunities. This is true for those with clean records as well as those with past criminal convictions. The latter group is simply more likely to run up against barriers to entry — and then get deflected back into criminal activity that will both injure others and impose new costs on taxpayers.
When it comes to occupational licensing, keep in mind that we aren’t just talking about doctors, lawyers, or those who install wiring in your house. North Carolina licenses barbers, auctioneers, librarians, athletic agents, scale technicians, opticians, locksmiths, and fur dealers.
Consumers certainly want these and other services performed safely, effectively, and affordably. But as John Locke Foundation policy analyst Jon Sanders put it, licensure is the “most extreme” means of promoting the consumer interest, and ought to be “reserved for only the most extreme cases where safety issues are paramount.”
Other, less restrictive approaches to consumer protection include policies that promote robust competition, laws against deceptive trade practices, workplace inspections, bonding and insurance requirements, business registration, and voluntary certification for quality and safety.
Armed with more information and solid recourses to pursue if they are mistreated, consumers can then make choices among competing providers, evaluate the results, and learn as they go. In this less-regulated environment, North Carolinians who’ve made mistakes in their past but are now trying to straighten up and fly right would have the opportunity to prove themselves.
With nearly a quarter of all North Carolina workers employed in licensed occupations, this is not a narrow problem affecting a small share of the population. Moreover, to the extent that we make it hard for those with criminal records to gain and maintain good jobs, we risk making our communities less safe, our jails and prisons more crowded, and our government budgets more expensive.
In this era of political polarization, criminal-justice reform has been a notable and productive area for cross-ideological cooperation. North Carolina has already reformed its sentencing policies and taken steps to reduce the number of juveniles exposed to prisons better suited for adults. Helping convicts turn their lives around through gainful employment would be an appropriate next step to take.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.