The 2019 legislative session saw two Southern states enact impressive new laws limiting the ability of occupational licensing boards to exclude qualified applicants based on their criminal record. North Carolina and Mississippi each passed strong new substantive and procedural licensing rules, and both of the new laws show the influence of the Model Law developed by the Institute for Justice. Both states have now eliminated vague “good moral character” criteria, and extended procedural protections that should make it substantially harder for boards to deny licenses based on criminal history.
As a result of these bills, both states now prohibit disqualification from licensure unless a crime is “directly related” to the license involved, both require written reasons in the event of denial, and both provide for a preliminary determination as to whether an individual will be favorably considered. In North Carolina’s case, this “predetermination” is binding on the board when the applicant later applies. North Carolina’s new law also requires licensing boards to report annually to the legislature on their consideration of applications from people with a criminal record.
In 2019, the following additional states have enacted new restrictions on the occupational licensing process: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. All told, in the past eight months 14 states have enacted 18 laws regulating occupational licensing in one form or another, with Texas accounting for five of the 18. These new laws are described in the relevant state profiles of the RRP, and they will be discussed in greater detail in our year-end report. They will also be incorporated into the updating of our general survey of U.S. relief and restoration mechanisms (“Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice”), which is now underway.
Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society. It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences. To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief. Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.
In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction. As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.
On January 28, 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court settled an issue it has toyed with for several years, relating to the inherent power of courts to seal criminal records. In State v. Radcliff, a closely divided court held that judicial power to seal a conviction record, including the record of a conviction that has been pardoned, is limited by law. In Ohio, there is no statutory basis for sealing a pardoned conviction as there is in many (though not most) states. The majority evidently found this conclusion an unhappy one, lamenting that “until the General Assembly acts, we are left with the understanding that a pardon provides only forgiveness, not forgetfulness.”
“Only forgiveness.” Is pardon then such a second class prize? What makes an official determination of the recipient’s good character by the state’s highest elected official so much less attractive an option for mitigating the adverse consequences of conviction than pretending it never occurred? If the answer is that the American people are relentlessly unforgiving, we clearly have some national soul-searching to do.
As will come clear from the following discussion, I do not share the Radcliff majority’s evident belief that a pardon is worth little unless it results in a court expunging the record of the pardoned conviction (and presumably the pardon itself).
“I don’t know why everyone is talking about the New Jim Crow; in the South the old one never went away.” – 2013 New Southern Strategy Coalition conference participant
The New Southern Strategy Coalition is a collaborative network of Southern advocacy groups and their national allies, originally convened in 2011 and dedicated to reducing the negative consequences of a criminal record in the South. Because the South has always been seen as a region resistant to criminal justice reform, many national groups do not have a presence there, and state-based advocacy efforts are generally underfunded and understaffed. The voices of those most affected are missing from southern state capitols, and the region is often left out of the national dialogue altogether.
NSSC addresses these challenges by providing opportunities for southern organizations to network and share information about regional best practices to minimize legal barriers to reentry. The premise is that state-specific reform efforts in the South will be supported and magnified by the Coalition’s collective goals operating across a unified landscape. NSSC holds regional conferences to discuss effective reform strategies, provides training and materials, ensures that the voices of directly affected individuals are included in a meaningful way, and uses web-based and social media tools to leverage reform efforts.