Turning Shackles into Bootstraps: Why Occupational Licensing Reform Is the Missing Piece of Criminal Justice Reform

By Stephen Slivinski

The three years following release from prison is the window in which ex-prisoners are mostly likely to re-offend. Successful entry into the labor force has been shown to greatly increase the chances that a prisoner will not recidivate. Yet govern- ment-imposed barriers to reintegration into the labor force — particularly occupational licensing requirements — can be among the most pernicious barriers faced by ex-prisoners seeking to enter the workforce.

Occupational licensing barriers often require higher levels of skill and educational attain- ment than many ex-prisoners have upon release. Additionally, many states have “good char- acter” provisions that prohibit ex-prisoners from ever receiving an occupational license. Other states have very weak restrictions on whether a licensing board can reject at their discretion an applicant for a license based mainly on the existence of a criminal record. Combining these occupational licensing barriers helps illustrate the higher-than-average hurdle faced by former prisoners that isn’t fully taken into account in convention- al measures of occupational licensing burdens.

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