By reforming occupational licensing, Maryland has an opportunity to lower the barriers to work faced by those with criminal records —an estimated 1.5 million Marylanders, given that one in three American adults has a criminal record. The key to these individuals moving past their mistakes is finding work. Just as not having a job is the main predictor of how likely someone is to be in poverty, not being able to get a job is the clearest indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend or end up incarcerated again.
But occupational licensing laws can pose unnecessary, often insurmountable, barriers to work for many people with records. Today, nearly 20 percent of Maryland workers require a state occupational license—essentially a permission slip from the government—to work in the numerous occupations licensed by the state.
To promote second chances, HB 1597, sponsored by Delegate Charles Sydnor (D), expands and updates the state’s workforce protections. The bill does this by ensuring that licensing restrictions on those with non-violent, non-sexual criminal records do not pose a permanent ban on work. HB 1597 overwhelmingly passed the House of Delegates on March 19 and now set for a floor vote in the Senate.
The American Bar Association found 348 licensing or certification restrictions in Maryland for those with criminal records. Many of these restrictions are mandatory bans, which require licensing boards to deny licensure regardless of circumstance, and some of these bans are permanent. Ambiguous language gives licensing boards added subjective discretion to deny people work.
Some argue that all these bans on work are necessary to protect public safety, but one need only to look at Maryland’s licensing restrictions to know that often, this is not true. Currently, someone who has been accused of any felony or crime involving “moral turpitude” may be denied a mortician or funeral director apprentice license. The same restrictions can be applied to those who want to volunteer as a dental hygienist or move to Maryland to work as a certified drug and alcohol counselor.
Maryland workers who have any felony or controlled substance violation can be refused a vehicle inspection mechanic registration. Boards under the Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation can deny a license for plumbers, cosmetologists, and interior designers, among other occupations, to applicants with any felony on their record. Perhaps the least-defensible example is that in Calvert County, Maryland, a felony or misdemeanor can disqualify someone from working as a licensed fortune-teller. With these restrictions, it is no wonder why those with records struggle to find work, especially those coming out of jail or prison. There are 35,000 individuals currently incarcerated in Maryland, and over 95 percent will be released back into the general population. Unfortunately, a year after release, between 60 percent and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals in the United States are still unemployed.
It is possible to protect public safety and peoples’ ability to work at the same time. For ex-offenders who committed non-violent, non-sexual crimes, HB 1597 gives those who have avoided reoffending for ten years after the completion of their sentence a clear path back to the workforce. Research has shown that nonviolent offenders who live crime-free for three to four years are no more likely to commit a crime than the average person. This is one reason why the state’s Collateral Consequences Workgroup recommended that most work restrictions faced by those with records should not last longer than seven years. Given the available evidence, this ten-year period could be amended to a shorter period and still offer strong public safety protections.
Nothing in this legislation applies to private employers. Furthermore, since state and local spending on incarceration costs over $1.7 billion a year in Maryland, any reform that lowers recidivism helps taxpayers. Even those who are tough on crime should want the thousands of Maryland residents who leave incarceration each year to rejoin the workforce and become self-sufficient.
After someone commits a crime, they face two options. They can find a job and substantially lower their likelihood of reoffending, or they can face government dependence and a higher likelihood of committing another crime. The desire to allow those with criminal records to find work is widespread: over 25 states, plus the District of Columbia, are considering similar reforms this year. Maryland lawmakers must continue their efforts to promote public safety and work by giving those with records a fresh start.
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