A bill aimed at helping people with past criminal records find open doors to work in occupations directly regulated by the state received final passage in the Pennsylvania General Assembly on Wednesday and is now headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk for adoption. Wolf is expected to sign it.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, breezed through the House and Senate with no opposition.
DiSanto’s effort is the latest in a set of bills aimed at removing employment barriers for ex-offenders that have gotten traction in Harrisburg in recent years, including a separate 2018 act that automatically clears the criminal records of most non-violent offenders who have gone 10 years without a new arrest.
DiSanto’s bill specifically addresses 29 job categories for which the state has all-important licensing authority, ranging from cosmetology to nursing to selling real estate or cars.
The bill requires the Department of State’s licensing boards and commissions to complete individual reviews of all applicants for licenses to determine if a past criminal conviction is a disqualification for licensure. The licensing entities must consider whether the crime or crimes are directly related to the occupation, weigh rehabilitative factors and whether issuing a license creates a substantial risk to the public.
Applicants would also not be required to disclose past convictions that were expunged under the Clean Slate law, or crimes committed as a juvenile.
The new policies are designed to supplant the past practice of license denials based on phrases such as “moral turpitude” and “moral character” that DiSanto and others said have too often in the past served as blockades to the ability of an otherwise rehabilitated person to take a step forward in their new lives.
“This (status quo) is contrary to the work of our state prisons to rehabilitate and actually train inmates in a skilled profession,” DiSanto told PennLive in an interview last year, where he noted the bill would be especially helpful to ex-offenders. “If you have completed your sentence, you should not be deemed guilty of seeking an occupational license.”
He and other supporters hope the new bill’s requirements will keep ex-offenders out of jail. The state Department of Correction says historically about 60 percent of its inmates released on parole are re-arrested within three years, often because they cannot find employment.
The bill tasks the various state licensing board to publish list of crimes that could trigger further scrutiny in their respective field, and gives prospective applicants the opportunity to seek preliminary decisions on their particular criminal histories before they invest large amounts of time and money in professional training and education.
The list of relevant crimes is supposed to be produced within 180 days of enactment of the law. Most of the other new procedures will take effect six months after enactment, or, in this case, right around the start of the new year.
Some offenses would still be non-starters. For example, a sexual offense would bar someone from work in health care. And the bill also requires a license applicant convicted of a violent crime to show three crime-free years from imposition of sentence or release from prison, whichever is later.
But the state boards and commissions would no longer be permitted to issue blanket denials based on an old convictions that are not directly related to the profession.
DiSanto’s bill does not apply to teachers, who are licensed separately by the state Department of Education.
The bill has had the support of a broad coalition of stakeholders including the Greater Harrisburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry, Community Legal Services, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Justice Action Network.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber, said the proposals will help offenders access their version of the American dream and can only benefit businesses across the state.
“The growing skills gap in the Commonwealth is a top concern of the state’s business community,” Barr said when DiSanto’s bill was introduced. “While there is no silver bullet to solving this problem, one important area of focus is criminal justice reform and removing barriers to help individuals reentering communities more easily obtain and retain employment.”
It’s been estimated that the state’s licensing boards are the gatekeepers to as many as one in five jobs in Pennsylvania’s economy.
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