June 2020

Nick Sibilla

Writer & Legislative Analyst

Earning an honest living is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for people with criminal records to find work, thwarting their chances of successful reentry. Along with other “collateral consequences,” like losing the right to vote or the ability to receive government assistance, individuals can be denied a license to work simply because of their criminal record.

This report provides the most up-to-date account of occupational licensing barriers for ex-offenders and will be regularly updated whenever a state changes its laws. Using 10 distinct criteria, this report grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their legal protections for licensing applicants with criminal records. (See Methodology.)

  • The average state grade is a C. Nationwide, 10 states—Arizona, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington—plus the District of Columbia earned a B or better. Reflecting the surge of interest in this issue, 10 of those 11 jurisdictions have reformed their licensing laws since 2015.
  • The District of Columbia and Iowa tied for first. In contrast, four states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, and South Dakota—were tied for last, receiving a zero on a 100-point scale for their lack of protections for ex-offenders seeking licenses.

State Grades

This report finds that licensing restrictions vary dramatically, with multiple states lacking even the most basic protections for people with criminal records seeking a license to work:

  • Licensing boards in five states can generally disqualify applicants based on any felony, even if it is completely unrelated to the license sought.
  • In 14 states, boards are free to deny licenses without ever considering whether an applicant has been rehabilitated.
  • Applicants in 31 states can be denied licenses based on an arrest that did not lead to a criminal conviction. In other words, boards can refuse to issue a license even though the applicant is functionally innocent.
  • In eight states, applicants have no guaranteed right to appeal a board’s decision, and boards are not required to issue their decisions in writing. 

Even within states, restrictions can be inconsistent: 

  • In 22 states, entire categories of occupational licenses (predominantly those in health-related fields) are exempt from the main laws providing protections for ex-offenders seeking licenses. Ex-offenders who apply for one of those licenses receive few, if any, of the safeguards otherwise guaranteed to applicants in other fields.
  • Kansas exempts from its protections any license for “any profession…that requires a degree beyond a bachelor’s degree,” effectively blocking many well-paying career paths for people with criminal records.

States are Increasingly Enacting Reforms without Jeopardizing Public Safety

Since 2015, 38 states have eased or eliminated licensing barriers for people with criminal records.

Licensing boards in 18 states are generally barred from denying ex-offenders a license to work, unless the applicant’s criminal record is “directly related” to the license.

In 19 states, ex-offenders can petition a licensing board at any time, including before enrolling in any required training, to determine whether their criminal record would be disqualifying.

Seventeen states block boards from denying licenses to ex-offenders based on their “good character” or “moral turpitude;” these vague and arbitrary terms have granted boards nearly unlimited discretion in other states. Another five states removed moral character requirements from many of their licenses but did not enact an overarching ban.

Twelve states impose a time limit for considering old felony convictions (aside from sexual and violent offenses), ranging from three years in Maine to 20 years in Wyoming.

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