Safe and Smart: Tearing Down Obstacles to Work
What does Pennsylvania gain from putting up more barriers to work for people getting out of prison? Making the comeback from a criminal conviction to rejoining the community is hard enough.
Although the recently-passed clean slate legislation offers a second chance to Pennsylvanians with a criminal record, there’s much more to do. In our new report, Safer Communities, Smarter Spending, we outline ideas that would make it easier for returning citizens to find a job and establish stability in their lives. Research indicates that having a job can significantly reduce recidivism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as jobs provide a purpose in life and a means of support—both of which are necessary to a person’s well-being.
Research indicates that having a job can significantly reduce recidivism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as jobs provide a purpose in life and a means of support—both of which are necessary to a person’s well-being.
So what can state government do to facilitate a transition from prison to work? Scaling back occupational licensing is one option. In a report published by Arizona State University, Stephen Slivinski found states with the highest occupational licensing burdens experienced a 9 percent increase in recidivism from 1997 through 2007. In contrast, states with the lowest burdens saw an average decline in recidivism of about 2.5 percent.
As my colleague Elizabeth notes, Pennsylvania imposes automatic licensure bans for 10 years for those with felony drug convictions. 13 of Pennsylvania’s 29 licensing boards enforce these bans and some boards can deny licenses to applicants with criminal records. These policies are unconscionable, considering unemployment for formerly incarcerated people is approximately 27 percent. Policymakers should reduce or eliminate these obstacles to employment.
Another counterproductive practice is the suspension of driver’s licenses for people with criminal convictions. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation suspended around 40,000 driver’s licenses for nonviolent, nondriving offenses just last year. Stephen Shelton, executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, says this is one of the most common obstacles his organization faces when helping people learn the skills they need to be succesful in today's workforce.
House lawmakers have acknowledged the challenges created by the suspensions of driver’s licenses, and took a first step to address these challenges by passing House Bill 163. This legislation would prohibit license suspensions for certain nonviolent offenses, putting an end to a punitive and senseless penalty on people looking for a second chance.
More than 90 percent of people entering state prison will eventually be released. Protecting their opportunity to find a job and build a career after release is an integral part of turning their life around and making Pennsylvania a safer place to live and work for everyone.