Reform proposals for occupational licensing laws and our criminal justice system net a remarkable degree of bipartisan support in this age of political polarization. That’s probably because it’s not hard to see why the government has no business locking people up for years over petty, nonviolent offenses — or deciding who gets to shine shoes or arrange flowers. These reform ideas are the sort of thing on which everyone (our government excepted) can pretty much agree.
The obvious injustice of current legislation in both arenas is what makes this story of their convergence so frustrating. As Eric Boehm reports at Reason, many occupational licensing laws make it difficult for former inmates to find work after they’re released from prison. Even though we know quick employment is one of the best preventive measures against recidivism, licensing laws severely limit the jobs available to ex-prisoners at the time when they need work most, even if the job has nothing to do with their conviction.
In 29 states, occupational licensing boards are allowed to reject applications from anyone with a felony conviction. In Illinois, for example, a criminal record automatically disqualifies people from obtaining 118 different state licenses, preventing them from pursuing work as barbers, massage therapists, roofers, cosmetologists, and dozens of other professions.
Removing this barrier to honest work should be an obvious, easy reform for state legislatures to pursue. When an ex-offender has served his time and regained his freedom, that should include the freedom to work.