Washington Examiner: Can letting ex-offenders work make us safer? One state wants to find out

By Jonathan Haggerty

Which of the last two presidents vowed to give ex-offenders a second chance in a State of the Union Address? You could hardly be blamed for guessing President Barack Obama, but the answer is President Trump. The quote made headlines due to its peculiarity coming from the “law and order” candidate, but it revealed that even hardliners like Trump are considering better ways to reintegrate former prisoners into society.

In Kansas, both Democratic and Republican members of the legislature have acknowledged a substantial obstacle to offender reentry: the ability to get a job. Senate Bill 421 is a bipartisan measure that aims to reduce the burdensome regulations ex-offenders face from occupational licensing boards.

Roughly one-third of American adults have a criminal record, which implies that more than 700,000 Kansas residents have some conviction. Unfortunately, occupational licensing boards across the country can make it next to impossible to legally work if you have a record. This might be less of an issue if licensed jobs were rare, but roughly one-third of all workers now require a government-granted license.

Nationally, roughly 30,000 licensing restrictions fall on those with criminal records, and thousands of these restrictions come in the form of blanket bans or include vague “moral turpitude” provisions that give boards immense latitude to deny ex-offenders licenses. SB 421 ensures boards cannot use any unrelated conviction as the sole basis for licensure denial. It may make sense to prevent a person with a recent drug conviction from working as a pharmacist, but they should probably be allowed to work as a barber. Inexplicably, the Kansas Board of Barbering can deny licenses to applicants with any misdemeanor drug conviction.

The bill also prevents boards from denying licenses for non-sexual, nonviolent crimes committed five or more years in the past. This provision is consistent with research on recidivism and time spent crime-free. Nonviolent ex-offenders who avoid re-offending for three to four years are no more likely to commit a crime than the average person.

SB 421 also requires boards to explicitly list potentially disqualifying crimes and allows individuals to petition the board to determine whether or not their crime will result in license denial, thereby saving applicants the immense time and energy that license applications entail. Considering that the average training for Kansas’s 35 low- to moderate-income licensed occupations is 200 days, getting this information is critical for someone who is about to invest time and money completing government-required training.

A skeptic might wonder why it’s necessary to make it easier for ex-offenders to work. One answer is that they have already paid their debts to society, and continuing to punish them after they have served time seems morally dubious at best. But new research demonstrates these collateral consequences may also damage public safety.

An Arizona State University study found that states with the most-burdensome licensing requirements for ex-offenders experienced a 9 percent increase in recidivism rates, while states with the least-burdensome requirements saw a decrease in recidivism rates of more than 4 percent. The explanation is not overly-complicated: Having a stable job restores a sense of dignity to the lives of people returning to society, and makes a life of crime less appealing by comparison. Drastically reducing employment prospects for ex-offenders only increases the chances they resort to crime.

Reform on this issue will not be easy. Licensing boards are often thinly-veiled business interest groups who would prefer to protect their market share. Promisingly, legislators in statehouses across the country are catching on, and reforms like the ones Kansas is offering represent a much-needed step in the right direction.

Read the article in the Washington Examiner here.

Jonathan Haggerty