Ex-offenders need to work to stay out of the system – but Illinois’ occupational-licensing rules keep many out of careers

Ex-offenders need to work to stay out of the system – but Illinois’ occupational-licensing rules keep many out of careers

To get ex-offenders back to work and reduce crime, Illinois needs to lift restrictions on the right to earn a living .

Illinois’ restrictions on who can enter certain professions – based on strict licensing rules – keep many qualified candidates from the careers they want to pursue.

That’s especially true for ex-offenders.

Lisa Creason knows this all too well. Over 20 years ago, Lisa tried to steal money from a Subway cash register so she could feed her daughter. At 20, she was sentenced to prison for three years for robbery, along with an unrelated burglary charge.

But Lisa resolved to make changes. She went back to school and completed a nursing degree while raising her children and working as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. Her goal was to become a registered nurse, which would allow her to advance in a career she loved, and afford a better life for her children.

But although Lisa proved she could be trusted to work with patients, Illinois state law prevents her from working as a registered nurse, the more highly compensated profession for which she earned her degree. As a result of the policy change, Lisa and her children remain on government assistance – with economic success just out of reach.

Lisa is just one of many people who’ve had success pulled out from under them by Illinois’ occupational-licensing laws. In Illinois, the state may or must deny licenses for 118 different occupations to people with felony records. The result is that many like Lisa remain dependent on government aid to make ends meet.

Nearly 25 percent of Illinois’ workforce has to get state permission to work legally, in the form of a state-issued professional license. Occupational-licensing requirements raise barriers to entry that prevent people from finding work and unfairly protect industries’ established players from market competition.

But ex-offenders face even higher barriers to work in these occupations. Illinois can deny an ex-offender permission to work as a barber, cosmetologist, dance-hall operator, geologist, dietician, roofer or sports agent, to name just a few examples. Illinois must deny ex-offenders licenses for occupations such as lottery ticket agent, mortgage loan originator and health care worker. The restrictions cover a host of positions that do not have a public-safety element, and some regulations don’t even set a time period after which the restrictions can be lifted, imposing lifetime prohibitions on ex-offenders’ obtaining many kinds of work.

These limitations make little sense when the state is seeking ways to reduce the prison population by 25 percent over the next ten years, a goal to which Gov. Bruce Rauner has committed Illinois. The harder the state makes it for ex-offenders to find jobs, the more it places public safety at risk – and pushes the cost of incarceration and crime onto the public. While 48 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years, nonprofits such as the Safer Foundation show that Illinois ex-offenders who are employed a year after release can have a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent. Success is possible, but only with employment.

There may be cause for case-by-case license denials. In an extreme example, no one wants to risk allowing a convicted child molester to teach children in a school. But these examples are few and far between – and should not define the state’s general policy approach to granting licenses. Carefully tailoring Illinois’ restrictions to limited situations could protect vulnerable populations, while enhancing career options for ex-offenders in general, thereby helping to lower the recidivism rate.

Here are two changes Illinois can make to enable former offenders to find work and employment:

  • Once a prison sentence is completed, a former offender should be presumed to have the same right to work to support himself or herself as any other resident of Illinois. To that end, licensing boards should generally be required to take sentence completion as evidence of rehabilitation when issuing a license.
  • The only justification for continued legal disabilities is in narrow cases in which particular offenders may pose unique public-safety risks if employed in specific professions. But the burden should always fall on the state to demonstrate that such a precaution is needed.

If government controls entry to a quarter of all jobs, as Illinois does, it has a significant ability to reduce employment options. Removing these restrictions would give ex-offenders the opportunity to earn a living – one of the best predictors of success after prison.

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