This week, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee passed legislation helping incarcerated citizens with criminal records find sustainable employment and long-term success. As the criminal justice system faces intense scrutiny, this is an encouraging and commonsense step toward a more equitable commonwealth.
Senate Bill 637 (Sens. DiSanto and Schwank) was amended to include reforms that remove professional licensing employment barriers for the roughly 3 million Pennsylvanians with criminal records. Once the full House votes on the bill, the Senate will need to approve the new language.
Currently, returning citizens can be disqualified from earning licenses in specific occupations, even if their original charge had no relation to the license—or even if they were trained in the profession while incarcerated.
The obstacles that many Pennsylvanians face are ludicrous: imagine taking out loans, earning a degree, and applying for a cosmetology license as the last step to opening a salon, only to be denied a license for a misunderstanding with police seven years earlier. That’s what happened to Ericka, a youth pastor who received criminal charges when police assumed she was involved in an altercation taking place outside her home. Only after hiring a lawyer could she achieve her dream of opening a salon with her daughter.
Such broad licensing rules are not only ineffective, but they disproportionately harm economically disadvantaged citizens and protect industry special interests without making those industries any safer.
To address these burdens, SB 637:
- Creates clear, accessible standards and best practices for boards when considering applicants with criminal records. Currently, boards have no list of exclusionary crimes or regulations on the use of criminal records.
- Provides individualized consideration of applicants. Automatic bans on licensure would be limited to sex crimes, serious crimes of violence, or drug trafficking offenses.
- Limits licensing boards to only consider criminal conduct directly related to the occupation. Under current law, license applicants can be rejected for crimes which have nothing to do with the practice of the profession and do not reasonably impact consumer safety.
- Removes vague licensing law language and limits license denial for those with felony convictions showing substantial risk. Some licensing laws permit license denial for opaque phrases such as “moral turpitude” and “good moral character” and for any felony, no matter how old or unrelated.
- Allows people to receive preliminary licensing decisions. If their records preclude a license, applicants would know immediately before wasting time and money on training.
- Grants restricted licenses to people trained in state correctional institutions. Individuals can work under supervision for one to two years to demonstrate suitability for the job if trained at taxpayer expense, even when they would otherwise be denied due to their records.
Professional licensing increasingly faces criticism across the political aisle for excessive regulations that unnecessarily deny people an opportunity to work. Even the state Supreme Court recently ruled licensing boards unfairly burdened citizens. By sending this bill to the governor’s desk, lawmakers have a perfect opportunity to ensure such laws do not stand in the way of the most at-risk populations—those who need employment to remain crime-free and out of prison.