Criminal justice reform is beginning to receive more attention and some states are looking to make even more progress–addressing what happens after prison. 

Currently, many states have clauses in their occupational licensing requirements which ban all individuals with a criminal background from obtaining a license, regardless of their specific conviction or any other qualifications.  While some may not exist as a state-wide measure, each specific licensing board is able to create its own requirements, including vague requirements such as a “good moral character” clause which often ends up banning anyone with a criminal background.  

But recently, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the Fresh Start Act which went into effect Nov. 1, “allowing those with nonviolent felonies a chance to seek occupational licenses for certain professions.”  This is a vast improvement to the former situation. Now, in Oklahoma, instead of a sweeping ban on all former convicts receiving occupational licenses, this law “allows for denial of licensure only for a conviction of a crime that substantially relates to the practice of the occupation and poses a reasonable threat to public safety.” 

A broad range of opportunities are now open to former convicts in Oklahoma.  Not only can many convicts be trained for certain occupations in prison and now actually receive licensure for those occupations, but often licensed occupations are ideal careers for individuals looking to find a new path in life.  This will help them get a new start in life and “is aimed at helping reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate in a way that still protects public safety.” 

State Representative Zack Taylor illustrated the effects of the bill: 

“This will give people that have made mistakes in their past a second chance at professional licensing… This doesn’t hide a person’s criminal record or require a business to hire them, but it does remove the barrier of restrictive licensing in many cases.” 

By providing those with a criminal background an opportunity to pursue a job which would give them a livelihood and a productive way to devote their time and energy, these individuals will be supported in their efforts to avoid slipping and reverting to their former habits. 

This law goes directly against the vague requirement for many occupational licenses which “required those seeking licensure were ‘of good moral character or have not been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.’” 

Pennsylvania is currently advancing legislation which would apply in a similar way to the Fresh Start Act.  The Philadelphia Tribune describes the bill: 

“The bill would require licensing boards to apply fair, consistent standards when awarding or revoking licenses, and allow them to deny licenses only if an applicant’s criminal convictions directly relates to the duties of an occupation.” 

Both bills have the ability to have a large effect on the lives of the formerly incarcerated.  The Philadelphia Tribune estimates that in Pennsylvania alone, there are more than 250 types of professional licenses.  This means that “20% of the state’s total workforce must obtain a license of professional certificate to do their jobs.” 

Just think of the number of lives that could be changed if more states adopted laws similar to the Fresh Start Act. 

While occupational licensing needs to undergo broad and drastic reform throughout the country, taking away extra barriers to former criminals will allow more individuals to pursue the American Dream and pursue the many opportunities that freedom offers. Hopefully, more states will recognize the importance of opening licensed occupations to more people and will work to provide more chances for success to the able and willing individuals who seek them.