If we really want former prisoners to become productive citizens, take care of their families, and stay out of jail, we should cut the red tape keeping some from getting honest work.
Take the case of “Beth,” a Mississippi woman who made mistakes, served her time, but then wanted a better life. Upon release, Beth entered school with the dream of becoming a dental hygienist. After completing her coursework with honors, Beth discovered she was barred from obtaining a license. In Mississippi, dental hygienists cannot get an occupational license if they have a felony conviction; without a license, they can’t work in their chosen profession.
How many other “Beths” are out there? Too many. About 30 percent of all jobs in the United States require an occupational license. A nationwide study by the Institute for Justice shows that Mississippi requires a license for 55 out of 102 low-to-mid-level jobs. Only four states license more. Such licenses may make sense for physicians or other professions, but they aren’t necessary for many other jobs.
In addition, licensing requirements often bar ex-cons from getting meaningful, productive work. Here in Mississippi, licensing restrictions prevent ex-cons from becoming tattoo/body artists, embalmers, dieticians, or athletic trainers. What is the logic in preventing an ex-con from cleaning teeth or helping people stay healthy?
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To its credit, the Mississippi Department of Corrections encourages convicts to get the skills they need to become productive members of society. One model MDOC is evaluating is a successful program at Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary that is training inmates in HVAC repair, automotive repair, plumbing, the culinary arts, even seminary studies. Whereas half of Louisiana’s inmates return to prison within five years, only 1 in 10 inmates that have participated in Angola’s two-year vocational training program return. These results are confirmed by a study published by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University. According to their research, states with high occupational licensing burdens have a recidivism rate (the percentage of inmates who return to prison) four times higher than states with low occupational licensing burdens.
At many of our prisons, we offer training in how to cut hair, do construction work and install carpet. All of the job training programs in Mississippi prisons do train prisoners for careers they are allowed to enter into upon release. Eliminating licensing prohibitions for ex-cons in other fields would create more options, reducing recidivism and reducing welfare dependency.
We need to stop licensing so many low-to-mid-level professions. We also need to be aware of the disproportionate impact licensing has on minorities. According to a recent White House report, “Laws restricting licensing opportunities for workers with criminal records have a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic workers.” The White House recommended adopting standards, as 25 states have done, that require licensing boards to clarify how policies that bar ex-cons from getting a particular license are relevant to that profession. A drug possession conviction, for instance, might be a reasonable basis for denying a Commercial Driver’s License, but be irrelevant to working as a tattoo artist.
Consider the case of Richard Chunn, a bail agent with a felony conviction stemming from a 1981 guilty plea for marijuana possession. Chunn had a long and successful career as a licensed bail agent until a 2011 state law forbid felons from obtaining bail agent licenses. Chunn sued and won at the Mississippi Supreme Court. Citing a similar case out of Connecticut, the Mississippi court observed that such laws fail “to consider probable and realistic circumstances in a felon’s life, including the likelihood of rehabilitation, age at the time of conviction, and other mitigating circumstances” with the result that “many qualified ex-felons are being deprived of employment.”
Bureaucratic, ham-fisted rules shouldn’t prevent people from turning their lives around. Mississippi should follow the 25 other states that are opening the door to hope and opportunity by adopting reasonable licensing standards for those with a criminal conviction.
Daniel Ashford is a research associate with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.