States are falling short when it comes to making occupational licensing opportunities available to people with criminal records. This is according to a report released this week by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People with Criminal Records examines the licensing laws of 40 states, and grades each state based on a number of criteria designed to assess how effective the law is at creating licensing opportunities for people with criminal records. The report is a powerful advocacy piece demonstrating the need for nation-wide reform of licensing laws, though it bears noting that its limited scope may distort the bigger picture in some states.
Recent studies and policy discussions focusing on the difficulty people with criminal records have finding employment tend to ignore the fact that nearly 30% of American jobs require state licensure or certification — which is frequently denied based on a conviction. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences (NICCC) shows that there are over 25,000 formal occupational and business licensing restrictions imposed nationwide at the state or federal level. Many of these restrictions apply regardless of a crime’s relationship to a particular license or the time since conviction. Across the nation, over 10,000 of these restrictions are mandatory and apply automatically, forcing licensing bodies to reject applicants with certain records regardless of their qualifications or evidence of their rehabilitation.
Municipal and county ordinances also regulate employment and business opportunities, including such important entry-level employment as taxi driver and street vendor, though ordinances are not catalogued in the NICCC and so were not included in the NELP report. Read more
A new report from the UCLA Labor Center with the snappy title of “Get To Work or Go To Jail” describes how the criminal justice system may compromise employment opportunities in more ways than one, placing workers on community supervision or in debt at the mercy of employers. Noah Zatz of the UCLA Law faculty, one of the report’s co-authors, summarizes the report’s conclusions as follows:
When many people consider work and the criminal justice system, they commonly focus on how difficult it is for people coming out of jail to find work. “Get to Work or Go To Jail: Workplace Rights Under Threat” goes further by exploring how the criminal justice system can also lock workers into bad jobs. Workers on probation or parole, facing criminal justice debt, or owing child support face a disturbing threat: get to work or go to jail. Because these workers face incarceration for being unemployed, the report finds that they cannot afford to refuse a job, quit a job, or to challenge their employers- and they can even be forced to work for free. This report identifies how the criminal justice system endows employers with this power.
In his final week on the bench, in an opinion that may in time prove among his most influential, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson issued a “certificate of rehabilitation” to a woman he had sentenced 13 years before. See Jane Doe v. United States, No. 15-MC-1174 (E.D.N.Y., March 7, 2016) (Jane Doe II). The opinion breaks new ground in holding that federal courts have authority to mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record short of complete expungement. Along the way, it confirms that a district court may use its inherent equitable powers to expunge convictions in “extreme circumstances,” an issue now on appeal to the Second Circuit in Judge Gleeson’s earlier expungement case. (Jane Doe I has been calendared for argument on April 7.) The opinion also finds a role for federal probation to play, including under New York State’s “robust” certificate system, which lifts mandatory state law bars to employment and other opportunities. It does all of this in a manner that should make it hard for the government to appeal, since “this court-issued relief aligns with efforts the Justice Department, the President, and Congress are already undertaking to help people in Doe’s position shed the burden imposed by a record of conviction and move forward with their lives.”
Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal blog noted that
More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia issue certificates to certain ex-offenders who have shown their days of crime are behind them, usually by remaining offense-free for a long stretch. . . . .
There is no equivalent federal certificate. So Judge Gleeson invented his own.
New York’s venerable certificate of relief scheme, which aims to mitigate the adverse collateral effects of criminal conviction, has served as a blueprint for certificate laws recently adopted in many other states. But are New York’s certificates actually effective at restoring rights and status? That is a question addressed in two new scholarly articles, both of which find that New York’s certificates are frequently inaccessible to their intended beneficiaries and misunderstood both by the officials tasked with issuing them and the employers and licensing boards that should be giving them effect.
Governor Cuomo recently directed reforms in the process for obtaining certificates in response to a report concluding that it has “historically been burdensome and slow.” These articles should be useful in that effort.
Both articles use interviews and anecdotal evidence to shed light on how certificate schemes operate in practice, providing insight into how government officials (including judges and probation officers), employers and convicted individuals interact with the laws (or fail to) in the real world. The increasing popularity of such well-intentioned laws represents an encouraging shift in legislative attitudes about second chances; but, as the articles make clear, they are only as good as their real-world application, which is more limited and less effective than many suppose.
Child care workers in every state are subject to rigorous criminal background checks that may result in mandatory bars to employment. Until now, each state has been generally free to define its own standards regarding screening for criminal history. That is about to change.
By September of next year, states receiving funds under the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 (which appropriates over $ 2.5 billion each year to fund state child care and child welfare programs) must adopt minimum federally-defined screening standards for child care workers or risk loss of funding. The revised statutory standards subject current and prospective child care workers to a multi-level criminal background check and disqualify from employment anyone convicted of crimes against children, specified violent crimes, and drug crimes within the past 5 years. States may opt to waive the disqualification for drug crimes on a case-by-case basis, but they are also free to adopt conviction-based disqualifications that are more restrictive than the law requires.
If the new CCDBG standards were not bad enough, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued proposed rules that would make them worse. On Monday, the CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project in calling on HHS to rethink proposed rules that would implement the new screening requirements. A formal comment filed by the coalition details the ways in which the proposed rules fail to adequately address the disparate impact that the requirements could have on women, African Americans, and Latinos, and takes issue with requirements in the rules that are more exclusionary than the Act requires. Read more
The 50-state chart of judicial relief mechanisms from the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource, which is also posted on this site, is a comprehensive survey of all authorities for judicial relief in the states and federal system. We wanted to bring it to our readers’ attention in light of the new federal interest in helping individuals with a criminal record overcome barriers to employment and licensing through clearing their records.
The National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, recently announced as part of President Obama’s reentry initiative, will “provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers to build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.” This joint project of the Labor and Justice Departments will doubtless make it a first priority to survey the laws providing judicial and other relief in different states, to determine what sort of assistance lawyers will need to neutralize the adverse employment consequences of conviction, though the courts or otherwise. We hope these resources will prove useful in that effort.
A few days ago we received the following communique from Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, announcing a major litigation victory that will be welcome news across the country. On December 30 a unanimous 7-judge appeals court struck down the provisions of the Pennsylvania Older Americans Protective Services Act barring employment of people with criminal records in long-term health care facilities such as nursing homes and home health care agencies. The provisions declared unconstitutional on due process grounds law include lifetime employment bans for offenses as minor as misdemeanor theft, which Sharon notes “prevented many Pennsylvanians with criminal records from working in that entire burgeoning field.” The decision in Peake v. Commonwealth is here, and NPR’s report on the decision is here.
On October 8, a former chief judge of the Eastern District of New York held that he was “constrained by controlling precedent” to deny the expungement petition of a woman who feared that her 23-year-old fraud conviction would prevent her from obtaining a nurse’s license. See Stephenson v. United States, No. 10-MC-712. Judge Raymond Dearie declined to find the “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement under Second Circuit precedent, noting that the petitioner before him was fully employed and that her aspiration to become a nurse was realistic, in light of the protection afforded her by New York’s nondiscrimination laws. He proposed that his own willingness to certify her rehabilitation could help satisfy the “good moral character” standard for a nursing license. (Could this be the sort of “certificate of rehabilitation” contemplated by Judge John Gleeson in his second Jane Doe expungement case? If so, it would seem to require no specific statutory authority for him to issue it to an individual he sentenced, no matter how long ago.)
Judge Dearie contrasted the case before him with the one in which Judge Gleeson ordered expungement in May, where the petitioner’s criminal record was having “a dramatic adverse impact on her ability to work,” citing Jane Doe I at *5. The government has appealed Judge Gleeson’s expungement order.