Reform commission targets occupational licensing
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s criminal-justice reform commission urges removing overbroad occupational licensing restrictions that bar ex-offenders from pursuing work in over 118 professions.
Occupational licensing – rules that require a government-issued license in order to work in a particular field – now covers about 25 percent of Illinois’ workforce. And these rules pose a significant barrier for former offenders looking for employment after serving their sentences.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform issued its first report in December 2015, and the commission’s findings point to ways Illinois can safely reduce its prison population by 25 percent by 2015. One of the solutions commission members flagged is occupational-licensing reform. The report argues:
“There are dozens of professions in Illinois that require a license, and a large number of these professions are closed by rule or by practice to those who have a prior felony conviction. Often these limits make good sense … but others appear to have only a loose connection to the person’s ability to carry out the tasks required by the profession …
“But communities are safer and stronger when former inmates are employed, and a close look at the licensing requirements will almost certainly reveal many instances where more occupations can be made accessible to those with a criminal record, without undermining public safety or the professional licensing process.”
The commission is right to point to licensing laws as a significant barrier to re-entry. Most people know private employers are often reluctant to hire ex-offenders – but they might not understand that government unnecessarily exacerbates this problem. On the state level, there are at least 118 professions for which government either must or may deny a license to anyone with a felony record. Anyone who aspires to be a barber, boxer, cosmetologist, funeral home director, accountant or roofer, to name just a few occupations, can be turned away by the government long after he or she has served time and paid his or her debt to society.
These limitations make little sense when the state is seeking ways to reduce the prison population by 25 percent over the next ten years. Those released from prison should be expected to support themselves and stay away from crime, but this will be harder if Illinois continues to make it more difficult for these people to find legal employment.
Of course, the government shouldn’t generally have the right to deny people the ability to support themselves. But any restrictions that remain should have expiration dates so that ex-offenders are eventually allowed to apply for licenses. Occupations that completely ban felons should change these restrictions to allow for case-by-case decisions, and the list of occupations that ban or restrict offenders from obtaining licenses should be drastically cut to remove occupations for which there are no obvious public-safety risks.
Illinois can’t afford to keep denying opportunities for financial stability and advancement to ex-offenders. But by encouraging job training and removing barriers to work, Illinois can reduce the number of people who repeatedly cycle through the justice system.