R. feared losing her cosmetology license and her job in 2017 after the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology said her past felony drug conviction made her a threat to public safety.
Her story is familiar, a license being threatened or denied outright because of a past crime.
R. was fortunate, though. She had access to a lawyer and appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. In April, the court ordered the board to grant her a probationary license, which means she can keep her job. If no other problems occur, the full license will be reinstated.
R. asked that her full name not be used because she fears risking future employment.
Eliminating licensing regulations that block people with criminal histories from getting work has gained support on the federal and state level. In 2015, the Obama administration released a list of best practices for states on occupational licensing. And President Donald Trump’s labor department is providing funding to states that want to study their licensing laws.
“If a person commits a crime, and they pay their debt to society, when does that debt end?” asked Jeff Robinson, director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Does it end when you come out of prison? Because apparently it’s just beginning when you come out of prison. And that makes no sense.”
In 2016, state and federal prisons released about 626,000 people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Studies show that having a job after incarceration makes a person less likely to return to prison. In 2017, about 24 percent of employed people had either a license or certification, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development has advised states to review their licensing laws. Strict licensing requirements have cost the economy 2.85 million jobs, according to The Hamilton Project, a research group within the liberal Brookings Institution.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is working on a bill to remove such barriers, said Kristin Lynch, a spokeswoman. The bill would require licensing agencies to standardize how the applications are handled and calls on the FBI to improve the accuracy of background checks.
"The bill would make it easier for people with criminal records who have served their time to obtain occupational licenses, which are needed in a wide range of jobs, like cutting hair and driving a taxi," Lynch said.
Advocacy groups are also pressing for reforms. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy group that helped draft Booker’s licensing bill, has joined with the liberal Center for American Progress to fund local criminal justice advocacy organizations in Rhode Island, North Carolina and Ohio. The libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice is also advocating change.
Since 2016, 14 states — Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Tennessee — have passed laws revising offender licensing restrictions or requiring boards to track how many people are rejected based on a past criminal conviction. A licensing reform bill is pending in the California Legislature.
The National Employment Law Project has put an emphasis on changing licensing laws for the big industries that can lead to good jobs for people leaving prison, said Maurice Emsellem, its fair chance program director.
“Transportation, healthcare, education — industries like that, where there's a lot of background check restrictions. And if folks can get those jobs, they can really move up the income ladder,” Emsellem said.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said criminal history checks have a disproportionate effect on people of color. The checks perpetuate discrimination, without persuasive evidence that a criminal background predicts risky behavior on the job, Emsellem said.
In a unique report released Tuesday, the Prison Policy Initiative says the unemployment rate for people with criminal records is more than 27 percent, five times higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate, or higher than the Great Depression. It was done with numbers from The National Former Prisoner Survey, which was completed in 2008. The Initiative's report shows that black women with criminal records rank at the top of that unemployment list (43.6 percent), with white men with criminal records at the bottom (18.4 percent). The Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group focused on the harm of mass criminalization.
Number of inmates getting barber licenses
Starting in 2015, a criminal history question has reduced the number of licenses obtained by trainees in Pennsylvania.
Background checks became a licensing hurdle for Pennsylvania barbers in 2015 after the licensing board added a question about criminal history to the application. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections saw the number of inmates getting licensed through its training program take a severe dip. The overall number of barber and barber manager licenses awarded in the state annually dropped by almost 25 percent, according to the corrections department. Even after prison officials got the board to review mitigating factors, there were still fewer student inmates getting licensed.
In June, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf proposed repealing a law that allows certain boards to ban anyone who has a felony drug record from being able to work in the field for 10 years after completion of a sentence. He has also proposed abolishing 13 licensing boards, including those governing natural hair braiders and barbers.
Licensing can result in higher wages and more credibility for an industry, and reviewing criminal history is “vital” to the board’s ability to protect public health and safety, according to a statement from the Pennsylvania Department of State. The department oversees 29 of the state’s licensing boards. A spokesperson said the department favors removing unnecessary barriers to licensure. Board members do not answer questions from the press, the spokesperson said.
In 2015, R. was arrested on charges of trading pills with an undercover police officer, according to court records. Before being sentenced, she completed two court ordered treatment programs and applied for her cosmetology license.
She was sentenced to five years probation in September 2015. Nine months later, R. was working two cosmetology jobs and was the sole provider for her two kids. Then she got a letter that her license was in jeopardy. Despite the board’s state attorney recommending R. continue working, the board chose to suspend her license indefinitely.
When R. appealed, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote that the board had abused its discretion and made findings not based on fact.
“I love what I do,” R. said. “I love where I work. It helps me on a daily basis.”
With a job, R. said she can stay focused; stay accountable; and stay a productive member of society.
This story has been updated to change how a source, now referred to as R., is identified.