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Lawmakers in Pennsylvania Must Go Further in Reform of Occupational Licensing Laws Currently Disadva

Lindsey Stroud - November 26, 2019

Legislation would prevent boards and commissions from automatically denying licenses based on criminal histories, but the Commonwealth should further reform some burdensome regulations imposed on certain occupations.

As several states address criminal justice reform and recidivism, Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a policy change to the Commonwealth’s occupational licensing laws, which currently forbid ex-offenders from attaining certain licenses.

An estimated one in three American adults have a criminal record. In Pennsylvania, approximately 4 to 5 percent of adult residents had a felony conviction as of 2010. Access to steady employment is necessary in reducing recidivism, but Pennsylvania, like many states, has made it exceedingly difficult for ex-felons to reenter the workforce.

One in five professions in Pennsylvania requires an occupational license. In the Commonwealth, “29 professional boards and commissions regulate 255 licensure types,” amounting to more than one million licensees. Of these, “13 of 29 boards have provisions … that impose a mandatory 10-year licensure ban for persons who have been convicted of a felony under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.”

SB 637, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators John DiSanto (R-Dauphin) and Judy Schwank (D-Berks), would reform Pennsylvania’s occupational laws by barring boards and commissions from automatically denying licenses to persons with a criminal record. The legislation would also require boards and commissions to adopt universal standards that are consistent and would bar the use of “moral character to make determinations of whether to grant or renew, deny, suspend, revoke or otherwise discipline a license, certificate, registration or permit.” Further, ex-offenders will only have licenses withheld if their criminal “convictions are directly related to said occupation after individualized reviews.”

“On average, each state has 56 occupational licensing and 43 business licensing laws that ban applications from felony convictions,” according to the Alliance for a Just Society. A 2018 report commissioned by Gov. Tom Wolf found “Pennsylvania is an outlier in applying an automatic criminal history licensure ban.”

Like Pennsylvania, many states are enacting reforms to their occupational licensing programs. Delaware and Indiana recently reduced conviction barriers in their occupational licensing laws. Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation that would “block licensing agencies from denying a license for past criminal offense, so long as it is not directly related to the field of work a license applicant is attempting to enter.”

Blanket bans on the issuance of licenses due to criminal convictions unnecessarily single out ex-offenders and make it more difficult for these persons to find work, leading to increased rates of recidivism. In fact, there is a direct correlation between occupational licensing burdens and recidivism. A 2016 Policy Report from the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University, found that “between 1997 and 2007 the states with the highest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9%.” States with the lowest regulatory burdens “saw an average decline … of nearly 2.5%.”

Gainful employment is key in reducing recidivism. The Manhattan Institute notes ex-offenders who quickly found employment upon their release were 20 percent less likely to return to prison. Indeed, a “5-year follow-up study of released offenders” in Indiana found “post-release employment was an effective buffer for reducing recidivism among ex-offenders.”

Although reducing barriers for ex-offenders is a good start, lawmakers in Pennsylvania should further reform onerous occupational licensing laws. The Institute for Justice notes that while “Pennsylvania’s licensing laws for lower-income occupations are some of the least burdensome in the nation,” the Commonwealth “frequently licenses occupations that are unlicensed by other states,” including auctioneers, taxidermists, and upholsterers.

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