Free Market

Utah’s Licensing Boards Discriminate Against Ex-offenders

This op-ed, written by Jazper Lu, an intern at Libertas Institute, originally appeared on

Picture this. A young man falls into poverty and, out of desperation, resorts to petty theft in order to help feed his family. He gets caught and is sentenced to a few months in prison as punishment. While serving out his time, the young man reflects on his past mistake, vowing to never resort to such acts again, and dedicates himself to pursuing a better life.

Three years after being released, the young man has not committed another crime and has found something he is passionate about—landscape architecture. He sees landscape architecture as a means to finding a stable and fulfilling career that will remove him from the pattern of desperation that led to his original offense.

Unfortunately for him, Utah law requires a license to engage in the practice of landscape architecture, meaning he will have to adventure through Utah’s arduous occupational licensing application process. He gathers his documents and submits an application form, pays a fee, and studies for and passes the relevant examination.

After having dumped hundreds of hours and dollars into the process, this individual may still be at risk of having his licensure application denied. Why? A licensing board consisting of landscape architects (who benefit from gatekeeping to decrease competition) subjectively decided that he did not meet the requirement of having a “good moral character,” using his criminal record as “evidence,” despite the crime seemingly being minimally relevant to the practice of landscape architecture and occurring long in the past. Now, not only is the young man continuing to be indirectly punished for a mistake he has served time for, but he is also being denied his right to practice his desired occupation. This has the potential to banish him to a life of limited social and financial mobility and push him into tough situations where he may choose to recidivate in order to meet his family’s basic needs.

This hypothetical story is a reality for many ex-offenders seeking jobs. In fact, with hundreds of occupations requiring licensure and an estimated one in four Utahns having some sort of criminal record, occupational licensing can actually prevent a vast swathe of the Utah population from working many jobs. These licensing obstacles are part of the reason why 46 percent of Utah’s inmates return to prison within three years. With limited economic opportunities, ex-offenders are forced back into circumstances where criminal activity seems like their only option.

One incremental step that Utah can take to make the licensing process more fair for ex-offenders is to join eighteen other states and completely 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.

This is problematic as many ex-offenders may find themselves denied licenses for occupations that on the surface minimally relate to 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 pass through the licensing process to the point of board consideration and decision. These licensing denials do not make Utahns any safer. Ironically, they accomplish the opposite, as the limiting of economic opportunities for ex-offenders only helps create desperate situations that foster the repeating of crimes.

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 some moral character requirements by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL). 
  • In the 2019 lawmakers passed HB 90 which provided an application process whereby ex-offenders can determine if their criminal history would disqualify them from licensure if all other requirements are met. HB 90 also required that DOPL only consider criminal history that “bears a substantial relationship to the licensee’s or applicant’s ability to safely or competently practice the occupation or profession.” 
  • In the 2020 legislative session lawmakers passed SB 201. This bill requires DOPL make individual considerations before they’re able to deny an applicant based on their criminal history. This ensures DOPL is not making broad general decisions about these individuals. They are required to consider each ex-offender’s application individually, as those situations are complicated and nuanced.

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 or private security sectors, as well as landscape architecture, are not yet covered under reforms repealing “good moral character” and “moral turpitude” clauses in their assessment of license applications. Utah should wholly block all licensing boards from using either vague clause.