Economist: Preventing ex-convicts from working is 'silly'
But for the heroic work of state prisoners, the wildfires that recently swept through northern California would have been even more destructive. Around 4,000 low-level felons made up 30% of the forest firefighters battling the raging flames, carrying chainsaws and other heavy equipment. Some risked their lives. Last year Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old who had less than two months of her three-year sentence left, died while fighting a fire. By all accounts, Ms Jones took great pride in her work, for which she was paid less than $2 an hour, and would have liked to continue firefighting once released.
Yet California, like many other states, makes it virtually impossible for former prisoners to get a firefighter’s license. The state requires nearly all firefighters to be certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT), an approval usually denied to convicted felons. That is why only a handful of former prisoners managed to get a job with Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), explains Katherine Katcher, founder of Root & Rebound, a California-based charity helping prisoners to re-enter society after they complete their sentences. Around 30% of all jobs in California require a license, compared with a national average of one-quarter. The state’s 200-odd licensing boards have lots of discretion over whether former prisoners can obtain occupational licenses. Many licenses have a “good moral character provision”, which immediately disqualifies anyone with a felony conviction.
California’s rules are actually relatively benign compared with some states. The National Employment Law Project graded the licensing laws of the 39 states and the District of Columbia which restrict the scope of licensing boards to consider criminal records. It found that Minnesota’s laws were the least punitive, California’s needed improvement, and 28 states had minimal or unsatisfactory laws. In Oklahoma, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, state licensing boards completely banned convicted felons from almost 40 professions ranging from asbestos-abatement contractor to embalmer, and from landscape architect and podiatrist to wrecker, a job which usually entails removing debris from building sites.
Such requirements are correlated with a higher rate of re-offending, says Jarrett Skorup at the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy in Michigan. Around 4m Michiganders have a criminal record, which makes it difficult or impossible for them to find work in the 150 professions that ban convicted felons. A recent study by Stephen Slivinski of Arizona State University found that between 1997 and 2007, states with the heaviest burdens of occupational licensing saw an average increase in re-offending within three years of release of over 9%. The states with the lightest burdens saw a decrease of 2.5% over the same period.
A few states have woken up to the cost of failure to reform their occupational licensing. A bill sponsored by Whitney Westerfield, a Kentucky state senator, would prevent licensing boards from denying applications if a criminal conviction is not relevant to the license being sought. In Illinois a law was passed last year that prevents licensing boards rejecting the applications of aspiring barbers, cosmetologists and hair braiders because of a criminal conviction, unless it is directly related to the job. And at the end of last month, after some hesitation, Connecticut admitted to the bar Reginald Dwayne Betts, who spent eight years in prison after being convicted of carjacking when he was 16. A graduate of Yale Law School, fellow at Harvard, accomplished poet, husband and father, Mr Betts has become the poster-child of the second chance.