Free Market

How Occupational Licensing Is Hurting Ex-Offenders

Most of us are familiar with the traditional punishments we levy upon criminals: imprisonment, fines, or even community service. However, what often goes unnoticed are the less apparent punishments that follow. Ex-offenders sometimes struggle to find jobs as a result of their criminal record, potentially banishing them to a life of unemployment or one of limited social mobility.

These “post-punishment” obstacles are part of the reason why 46% of Utah’s inmates return to prison within three years. In fact, some of these obstacles are codified into law. For example, in Utah, criminal records are taken into account when applying for a professional license, preventing many ex-offenders from accessing certain occupations and limiting their economic opportunities.

The argument is safety, but an athletic trainer, a security alarm installer, and even a barber require a professional license. Would barring someone who committed petty theft a few years ago from becoming a barber make Utahns any safer? Rather, it would be more dangerous to risk the ex-offender being unemployed and resorting to committing additional crimes to pay bills.

With an estimated one in four Utahns having some sort of criminal record, the usage of occupational licensing to target ex-offenders affects a vast swath of the state’s population. Occupational licensing in general already has harmful economic effects, preventing millions of people from entering the workforce and costing billions of dollars to the economy across Utah and the United States. This is atop a labor shortage problem in Utah which continues to grow from occupational licensing laws that gatekeep certain professions.

One incremental step that Utah can take to make the licensing process increasingly more fair for ex-offenders while reducing the scope of occupational licensing in general, is to join eighteen other states that ban the use of vague “good moral character” or “moral turpitude” considerations. Currently, these clauses unnecessarily give licensing boards broad leeway to deny people, mainly those with any sort of criminal record, from obtaining professional licenses. It is left to the licensing board to subjectively determine whether someone may have “good moral character” or whether what they did in the past was of “moral turpitude,” making the requirements for licenses unclear and arbitrary.

This is problematic as many ex-offenders may find themselves denied licenses for occupations that have nothing to do with the crimes they committed in the past. It also dissuades ex-offenders from pursuing licenses as it requires a lot of money and time to get through the licensing process to the point of board consideration and decision.

Fortunately, Utah has already made good progress in this area, recognizing the benefits of making it easier for ex-offenders to find employment. Reforms in 2019 and 2020 repealed the use of moral character requirements by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL). Nonetheless, there is still much to improve on this front. The DOPL continues to allow its boards to block licenses based on whether someone has committed “crimes of moral turpitude,” a term that is not well defined.

Furthermore, licenses issued by other departments, such as those that concern the financial and private security sectors, are not covered under the reforms, meaning they still utilize “good moral character” and “moral turpitude” clauses in their assessment of license applications. Utah should wholly block all licensing boards from using both vague clauses and, if occupational licensing is truly necessary, set defined, relevant standards for what crimes would cause an application to be denied.

More reform concerning Utah’s occupational licensing laws as it relates to criminal justice is obviously needed, and this would be a step in the right direction. This would be a step that has bipartisan appeal as seen in its implementation in states like California and New York as well as Kansas and West Virginia. All in all, it would make Utah safer while reducing the recidivism rate, increasing economic opportunity for ex-offenders, strengthening the labor market, and fostering a society that is more forgiving and willing to help those who may have made unfortunate mistakes in the past.