Professions that require an occupational license to practice are often more accessible than jobs that require a college degree, and many pay quite well. Plumbers, electricians, and cosmetologists are some common examples. But licenses are required for a lot more jobs than we might think. Nearly 30 percent of the American workforce needs a license to do their job, so we should carefully examine the rules about who can, and can’t, get an occupational license. This is especially important for the justice-involved, a group that faces multiple barriers (including licensing restrictions) to employment and economic stability.
The good news is that Oklahoma is undertaking this important examination. Last year the Legislature created a commission to review occupational licensing requirements in Oklahoma, and the Commission worked through the fall on recommendations to reduce the burden of licensing in Oklahoma. Governor Stitt has also brought attention to the issue, pointing out the particular importance of this issue for the justice-involved in his first State of the State address.
Oklahomans with a history of justice-involvement need good jobs
Oklahomans with previous involvement in the criminal justice system too often have a hard time finding a job. The unemployment rate for these Oklahomans is nearly five times higher than that of the general population. And when justice-involved people cannot find jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families, they become more likely to re-offend and re-enter the justice system. In fact, stable employment is the most influential factor in decreasing recidivism.
Given that Oklahoma incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other state, and that the large majority of people who go to prison are released at some point, we must seriously consider policies that would help the justice-involved successfully re-enter society. Reforming occupational licensing in Oklahoma is one way we can expand opportunities for the justice-involved.
Occupational licenses are a barrier to work for the justice-involved
Today in Oklahoma, many occupational licenses are unavailable to individuals with a felony conviction in their past. Some are also unavailable to those with just a misdemeanor. Many licensing rules include “blanket ban” provisions that automatically disqualify the justice-involved, even when a crime has no direct connection to the occupation. Denying someone an opportunity to work because of a previous, unrelated mistake benefits no one, and Oklahoma should take steps to prevent this from happening. The Legislature has the opportunity to do just that this session. There are two bills in particular (HB 2134 and HB 1373) that are good steps forward and would help make licensed professions more accessible to the justice-involved.
HB 2134 (Rep. Munson and Sen. Pugh) would allow licensing boards or agencies to deny a license to individuals with a criminal history only if the crime directly relates to the occupation. This could mean that the crime is directly related to the duties of the job or that the job might offer an opportunity to commit the same crime again. In addition to prohibiting blanket bans, Rep. Munson’s bill also creates an opportunity for those with a disqualifying criminal history to demonstrate that there are mitigating circumstances in their case or that they have been rehabilitated. Both of these provisions would go a long way toward improving access to occupational licenses.
HB 1373 (Rep. Taylor and Sen. Daniels) would also help remove barriers to licenses by removing blanket bans. Licensing authorities would instead be required to create a list of the criminal records that would disqualify an applicant for the license, and that list could only include crimes that are directly related to the occupation (though this bill does not define what makes a crime “directly related” as HB 2134 does). HB 1373 also removes all current statutory language requiring that license holders be “of good character” or refrain from “moral turpitude” in order to get and keep their license, as the vagueness of these requirements could be used as a loophole to deny someone a license for previous justice-involvement even though their specific conviction is not on the list of disqualifying crimes. This is a good provision, but it would be more effective if the bill also prevented any new licenses created in the future from including this character language as well.
What happens next?
Both HB 2134 and HB 1373 have been passed by the House and are waiting to be heard by a Senate committee (HB 1373 has already been referred to the Business, Commerce, and Tourism Committee, and we expect that HB 2134 will be referred to the same committee). If your state senator is a member of the committee, please contact them and ask them to vote for these two bills. If your senator is not on the committee, you can ask them to vote yes on these bills if they reach the full Senate. Don’t know who your state Senator is? Click here to find out who they are and how to contact them!