In this era of partisan bickering, it often seems as if there is little Republicans and Democrats can accomplish. But despite all the gridlock reported in media headlines, the Pennsylvania State Senate recently approved my bill, S.B. 637, by a unanimous vote. Their strong support for the legislation further underscores an emerging bipartisan consensus towards commonsense criminal justice reform that facilitates former inmates’ successful re-entry into our workforce and communities.
This legislation, introduced along with my Democratic colleague, Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, prevents the state’s professional boards and commissions from denying or revoking a job license based solely on an individual’s criminal record, unless the conviction is directly related to the occupation. Even then, state boards must consider rehabilitative factors such as an individual’s participation in education and training activities, employment history and character references.
Senate Bill 637 also provides increased transparency in the licensing process by requiring state boards and commissions to identify upfront which types of criminal convictions are directly related to the duties, functions and responsibilities of the profession. In addition, individuals may petition state boards and commissions for a preliminary determination as to whether or not a criminal record would prohibit them from licensure before they invest the time and money into a job training program. There will be greater confidence in the process when a common set of rules is applied to all cases.
These reforms are sorely needed because many of the state’s occupational practice laws have automatic employment bans along with vague and subjective terms and requirements, such as that an individual must exhibit “good moral character” in order to obtain a license. In practice, this provision has resulted in many qualified applicants being denied the right to work because of an old or irrelevant criminal record.
The 29 state boards and commissions regulate 255 licensure types, including barbers, cosmetologists and massage therapists. Approximately 1 in 5 jobs require a government-issued license and with nearly 3 million state residents having some kind of criminal record, the status quo for how state boards and commissions handle criminal history closes the door to employment for countless Pennsylvanians.
Nowhere is this practice more counterproductive than in the Commonwealth’s own prison system. Given the fact that more than 95 percent of all those incarcerated are eventually released, our correctional facilities offer an array of rehabilitative and job training programs to ensure inmates are equipped with skills to obtain employment for when they reenter the community. One such program offered is barber training. Inmates are able to log the necessary hours and even pass the state exam only to later be denied a barber license from the state board solely due to their criminal history.
If those reentering our communities have completed their sentence and paid off their debts to society, they should not be deemed forever guilty when seeking an occupational license. Blanket licensing prohibitions on those seeking to rebuild their lives and pursue economic opportunity and financial independence do not serve the public interest. In fact, it is a public safety risk as the inability to obtain a job greatly impacts the recidivism rate.
Studies have found the states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens experienced higher numbers of reoffenders compared to states with fewer barriers to licensure and an emphasis on individualized assessments that take rehabilitative factors into consideration. By giving those with criminal records a fair chance at an occupational license, we encourage the dignity of work, give individuals the chance to earn family-sustaining wages and strengthen entire communities.
With unemployment rates at record lows, job creators and chamber groups have repeatedly expressed concern about the skilled labor shortage and inability to find qualified applicants to fill job openings at their businesses. The reforms contained in S.B. 637 ensure state government is no longer an unnecessary barrier to those that have taken the steps to rehabilitate themselves, complete the required training and education, and demonstrate the fitness and willingness to work in high-demand occupations across the Commonwealth.
States across the country have enacted similar reforms with great success, removing government obstacles to employment and expanding their skilled workforces. Pennsylvania is overdue for an occupational licensure overhaul and I implore the House of Representatives to act quickly on my legislation.
Senate Bill 637 has earned the support of both the Senate Republican and Democratic Caucuses, the Wolf Administration and a broad coalition of business and community stakeholders that are committed to solidifying our state as a place that allows all its citizens, including those who have made past mistakes, an opportunity to prosper and succeed. The most effective social program and recidivism deterrent is a productive job for anyone who's willing to work.
Senator John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, represents Pennsylvania’s 15th Senatorial District.
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