by Jennifer Tiedemann
January 17, 2019
In New Jersey, people with prior criminal convictions can face extremely high barriers to working in certain professional fields, even if their record has nothing to do with the career they’re seeking. For those with a criminal history, being able to get a job may mean the difference between turning their lives around and reverting to crime.
However, these unfair, unwise restrictions may not exist for much longer.
Today, the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee is discussing S1589, which would remove most of the limitations that currently prevent people convicted of crimes from obtaining the occupational licenses their need to work in a wide range of jobs. Currently, state law allows professional and occupational boards to refuse to issue licenses to a person “convicted of, or engaged in acts constituting, any crime or offense involving moral turpitude or relating adversely to the activity regulated by the board.” If enacted, S1589 would take out the “moral turpitude” reference and ensure that no one could be disqualified from getting an occupational license because of a prior criminal conviction unless the crime directly relates to the occupation regulated by the board.
Lowering the barriers to entry to licensed occupations would be great news for New Jerseyans with a criminal record. Not being able to get the license needed to work in a certain profession makes it more difficult for those with criminal convictions to overcome their past and make positive contributions to society through their work. The mistakes of one’s past shouldn’t haunt a person forever and keep them from turning their lives around. But that’s exactly what overly restrictive occupational licensing laws do, with the burdens falling disproportionately hard on black and Hispanic workers as well as low-income workers.
And without an available path to obtaining occupational licenses, it’s more likely that those with past records will return to crime. A 2016 report from Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty found that states with heavier licensing burdens for people with criminal records tend to see higher recidivism rates than states with lighter burdens. Returning to crime is simply easier when one major avenue to a better life is blocked by the government.
This is not just a New Jersey problem. According to a November 2018 report from the National Employment Law Project, “more than 20 states have no standards in place governing the relevance of conviction records of applicants for occupational licenses. In these states, a licensing board may deny a license to an applicant who has a conviction, regardless of whether the conviction is relevant to the license sought, how recent it was, or whether there were any extenuating circumstances.” While the pendulum is swinging toward reform of these restrictive laws, they still do exist—and legislators should take steps toward changing these laws where they remain.
This push for reform gets support across the political spectrum. Organizations ranging from the progressive Center for American Progress to the libertarian Institute for Justice have issued reports showing the damage done by occupational licensing laws that fall hard on those with criminal records. Helping those with records have easier entry into licensed occupations just makes sense—and New Jersey lawmakers will hopefully be the next to enact reforms to make that happen.
Jennifer Tiedemann is Deputy Communications Director at the Goldwater Institute.