D.C. City Council Passes Sweeping Licensing Reform to Help People with Criminal Records Find Work

The Council of the District of Columbia unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that will make it much easier for people with criminal records to become licensed in their chosen field. Previously, the District had below-average protections for ex-offenders seeking licenses to work, receiving a C- in a recent report by the Institute for Justice, Barred from Working. But thanks to the bill passed this week, that grade will soar to an A-, with the District’s laws the best in the nation, second only to Indiana. 

“An honest living is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work,” said IJ Activism Policy Manager Chad Reese, who submitted testimony in favor of the bill. “This bill will eliminate many licensing barriers that have little basis in common sense and unfairly deny countless Americans looking for a fresh start.”

After adopting many of the suggestions IJ offered in its testimony, the Removing Barriers to Occupational Licensing for Returning Citizens Amendment Act will: 

  • Block boards from denying licenses based on criminal convictions, unless they are “directly related” to the license sought; 
  • Prevent boards from using arrests that didn’t result in a conviction as well as sealed, expunged, or vacated records;  
  • Repeal vague and arbitrary “good moral character” requirements found in multiple licenses (including for accountants, dental hygienists, and interior designers); 
  • Enact new reporting requirements to track the number of applicants and licenses issued and denied to people with criminal records. 

The bill will also create a petition process so that ex-offenders can see if their criminal record would be disqualifying, before they invest in any potentially expensive or time-consuming training or coursework. By imposing significant costs in terms of time and money, licensing laws often create substantial hurdles to worker mobility and prisoner reentry. For instance, according to a report by the Institute for Justice, the average license for lower- and middle-income occupations in the District requires paying $400 in fees, finishing 261 days of training and experience, and passing one exam. 

Since 2015, 33 states have eased licensing barriers for ex-offenders.

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