Prisoners fighting California fires denied licenses after release
Many are denied jobs for their criminal record
Nor are firefighters the only position off-limits. Under California law, the state’s licensing boards can deny a credential on the basis of an applicant’s criminal record or alleged misconduct. Thanks to the rise in occupational licensing, nearly 1,800 occupations now require a license, certification, or clearance in the Golden State, affecting one-fourth of California’s workforce. As a result, hundreds of different occupations are effectively barred to roughly 8 million Californians.
Not only do these policies slam the door on economic opportunity, they may also increase re-offending. A recent study from Arizona State University found that states with more burdensome licensing laws saw their average recidivism rates jump by nine percent. By comparison, states with fewer licensing restrictions and no moralizing provisions had recidivism rates decline by 2.5 percent, on average. In fact, licensing burdens were second only to the overall labor market climate when it came to influencing recidivism rates.
California is trying to fix the problem
Fortunately, new legislation would curb some of California’s licensing barriers against ex-offenders. As part of a public safety omnibus signed earlier this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL-FIRE) can certify former prison firefighters as “emergency medical responders,” a certification CAL-FIRE accepts in lieu of an EMT license for some state firefighter jobs. A separate bill would require agencies to report the number of applicants with a criminal conviction who have been denied or granted an EMT license, which would provide valuable data for further reforms.
More broadly, another bill, AB 2138, would tighten the standard used to disqualify ex-offenders by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which governs 38 different boards, bureaus and commissions. Under the bill, boards could not use a conviction older than five years to reject a license (though that would not apply to violent felonies).
Each board would also have to publish the criteria it uses to evaluate applicants, which must include any evidence of rehabilitation, the time elapsed since the offense as well as the nature and gravity of the offense. Critically, boards could only use convictions, not arrests or records from dismissed cases. AB 2138 has already passed the Assembly earlier this year and is currently under consideration in the Senate.
California could soon join 16 states that have already eased or eliminated licensing barriers for Americans with criminal records since 2015. Many of these state reforms protect the ability of ex-offenders to get the permits they need, while also ensuring that boards only deny applicants who would truly threaten public safety.
California needs fewer requirements to work
These efforts are all welcome reforms to a system in desperate need of an overhaul. Yet even if former inmates aren’t automatically barred because of their past mistakes, burdensome licensing requirements can still keep them from working. According to a recent, nationwide study by the Institute for Justice (where I work), the average license for a lower-income occupation takes almost a year of education or experience.
California ranked as the “worst licensing environment for workers in lower-income occupations,” with the average license requiring a staggering 827 days of training. Absurdly, becoming a professional tree trimmer, barber, or painting contractor in California takes vastly more experience than becoming an EMT, who literally holds the lives of others in their hands.
A steady job is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work. The denial of so many fundamental civil rights and liberties has essentially turned many ex-offenders into second-class citizens. Restoring the right to earn an honest living is crucial for ex-offenders to regain a sense of hope and a new chance at redemption.
Nick Sibilla is a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice. You can follow him on Twitter: @nick_sibilla
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