The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, June 19, approved a bill making it easier for former criminal offenders to become licensed professionals. The measure, which passed the House by unanimous vote May 3, now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are locked out of work because they have a criminal record. But House Bill 770 would open the door to licensure and help reduce the risk those former offenders will break the law again.

Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, said as much at the June 18 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where H.B. 770 was briefly discussed.

“We know that secure, well-paying jobs reduce crime, increase family formation, and when we have less crime and more families we have happier, healthier, more prosperous communities,” Guze said.

H.B. 770, otherwise known as the Freedom to Work bill, clarifies how licensing boards can use criminal convictions to deny licenses.

Occupational licensing boards now have broad discretion to deny a license based on vague requirements, such as an applicant having “good moral behavior” and not committing a crime of “moral turpitude.” A board can deny a license based on a conviction that’s decades old which has nothing to do with the licensed profession in question.

The Freedom to Work bill prevents occupational licensing boards from citing a prior conviction to automatically disqualify someone from licensure. A licensing board can still deny a license to someone with a criminal history, but the board must show the conviction is directly related to the profession.

In addition, H.B. 770 would allow applicants for licenses to petition a board to see if their criminal history would preclude them from obtaining a license before undergoing the schooling and exams needed to qualify.

Under H.B. 770, licensing boards must consider Certificates of Relief favorably. A Certificate of Relief is a court order that can provide an ex-offender relief from some civil disqualifications such as being denied a license to work.

“This is very important,” Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr, D-Durham, said. “So many people are frozen out of society because of a criminal history and a criminal record even though they paid their debt to society, so having a Certificate of Relief open to more employers is a great thing.”

Sen. Andy Wells, R-Catawba, said H.B. 770 contains portions similar to his bill, Senate Bill 305.

“We agreed that these bills are related enough that they should be merged into one bill to address the issue,” Wells said.

The bill has broad ideological support, with both the right-leaning John Locke Foundation and the left-leaning NC Justice Center supporting the idea behind the legislation.

A joint JLF-Justice Center statement noted more than 60% of people nationally with criminal records remain unemployed a year after rejoining society.

“Research shows that work plays a significant role in preventing dependency and is an indicator of how likely someone is to reoffend. If we want to discourage recidivism, therefore, we need to remove unnecessary restrictions on employment,” the statement reads.