Ex-offenders in Pa. can be denied professional licenses because of old convictions. Bipartisan lawmakers want to change that

Sen. John DiSanto announces a licensing reform bill on Wednesday, May 22.
Sen. John DiSanto announces a licensing reform bill on Wednesday, May 22.

One year after Pennsylvania passed its landmark Clean Slate Law, which shields certain criminal records from the view of employers, lawmakers hope to eliminate yet another barrier to employment for ex-offenders.

A bill introduced by state Senators and Representatives in the bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Caucus would make it easier for people with criminal records to obtain professional licenses required for such professions as barbering, cosmetology, nursing, and architecture.

The licenses are granted by 29 professional licensing boards, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Current state law allows those boards to deny an application, or revoke a license, from someone based on their criminal history. Some state occupational laws also allow the automatic denial of licenses to applicants with criminal records.

That would change under a bill sponsored by Sens. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, and Judy Schwank, D-Berks, which would require occupational licensing boards to apply fair, consistent standards when awarding or revoking licenses.

Reps. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, are sponsoring a companion bill in the House.

Under both the House and Senate proposals, felony convictions would no longer be automatic grounds for a board to deny or revoke a license.

Instead, an applicant could only be denied a license if his criminal conviction is directly related to the occupation they wish to practice.

Boards could still consider an applicant’s criminal history in the review process, but would have to take into account the nature of the offense, and the offender’s rehabilitation and conduct following their conviction.

“We want to add balance and predictability to this process,” said Schwank, who appeared with fellow lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates at the Harrisburg CareerLink employment agency Wednesday to announce the legislation.

The lawmakers hope the proposal will enable thousands of Pennsylvanians to secure stable, middle-class jobs.

“As it stands, many people who have felonies in Pennsylvania are automatically locked out of employment,” Harris said. “If I have a felony drug charge, what does that have to do with me cutting hair?”

Proponents of the bill also hope it will keep ex-offenders out of jail.

Sixty-one percent of people released from Pennsylvania prisons are rearrested within three years of their release, often because they cannot find employment, said Stephen Bloom, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy organization that supports the licensing reform.

“The only way to lower the recidivism rate is to increase the employment rate,” Harris said.

How it would work

There are two ways an ex-offender can be denied a license under current state law, according to Brendan Lynch, an employment lawyer at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

Professional licensing laws, such as the Barber Licensing Act of 1983, allow a board to deny or revoke a license from any applicant who “engages in unethical or dishonest practice or conduct.”

Then there’s the state Criminal History Record Information Act, which was adopted in the early 1980s, just before incarceration rates began to climb across the United States. It says applicants can be denied a license if they were convicted of any felony, or if they were convicted of a misdemeanor related to their profession.

The bills unveiled Wednesday would strike that language from state statutes.

Under the proposals, any arrest records, expunged or pardoned convictions, or misdemeanor and felony convictions that do not relate to the applicant’s desired profession could not be used by boards as they review license applications.

Lynch said the amendment would also effectively overturn provisions in some state licensing acts that make some convictions automatically disqualifying.

The state nurse practice act, for example, says that the nursing practice board shall not grant a license to anyone with a drug-related conviction that’s less than 10 years old.

Under the Senate proposal legislation, “there would be no automatic denials” for anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction, Lynch said. Instead, boards would consider criminal histories on a case-by-case basis to determine if they interfere with an applicant’s ability to join a particular industry.

Lawmakers sponsoring the legislation said there’s still some work to be done to determine which convictions could be disqualifying grounds for certain licenses.

DiSanto also said that the legislation “does not anticipate repeat violent offenders” will be granted licenses. Instead, it’s intended to help offenders who have served their sentences and shown the will to reintegrate into society.

“We need to really stop these automatic blocking of people obtaining these licenses,” DiSanto said. “If this charge happened decades ago and you’re leading a good life, why should you be blocked from that?”

This is every way the state Senate plans to reform criminal justice this session

4 COMMENTS

  1. Nursing was my life for years i planned to go back to school once my children became older an obtain a registered nursing degree i made a really bad choice an threw my dream away by catching a felony charge..wish i would have made better choices an didn’t have to live in regret an what seemingly feels like without purpose. I wish society believed in second chances.

  2. This would be nice! I am having trouble getting my state crane license, because of a felony from 8 years ago. I spent years learning everything about these machines. Just to be told I can’t go to work because of my past. It’s costing me money and jobs..

  3. Yes this is something currently affecting me as we speak. Although it was only two years ago. My house caught on fire do to me consorting with people I shouldn’t have been. I am a recovering addict who is seeking help and found out that one of my former friends was making meth in my house. I left treatment and came home to put them out and the house went on fire. I had all of my medical records to show where I was just prior to the fire and records showing that I did speak to my counselor saying that I wanted to leave to go home and solve an emergency with people doing things in my house that shouldn’t be. I was in on a 201 self commit in order to get myself clean both mentally and from my addiction. Because the fire happened at my house I was initially charged with five different felonies three misdemeanors and summary related to a meth lab that wasn’t even mine. After proving my case they dropped almost all of the charges but they did hit me with a felony 3 conviction for negligent storage of the chemicals because they said because I was made aware of what this person was doing and came home to handle it myself rather than call the police that I was negligent. All I was trying to do was lead a better life I went in to see treatment to get myself clean and this happened and as a result of it now I’ve been barred from many different jobs have a family of four to support and it looked into starting my own business. Things are going very well but I don’t want to be an under-the-table business as I’m trying not to do anything immoral or unethical in my life anymore. I decided I was going to start a business because I have over 15 years of contractors experience. I lined up a lot of potential clients and was doing very well for myself building Capital to start this business. When I go for my licensing and insurance, Fam I’m denied because of a felony. They didn’t even ask what the felony was regarding, they didn’t even ask for a disclosure oh, nothing. As soon as I said yes to the question of was I convicted of a felony in less than 5 years my application was thrown out denied and they said we can’t help you. No one wants to hire me because nobody wants to hear my story and they simply see felon and turn their backs. So I try to do it on my own, and I’m still denied the ability to support my family and give them a better life now that I’m a different person all because of a mistake in the past. It’s no wonder the crime rate goes up for ex felons because it’s actually like the article says people are denied from work and even the ability to work for themselves. There’s plenty of ways to make money outside of that, but 95% of them are illegal. So things like this pretty much forced people into a life of crime in order to support themselves and their babies and it’s inhumane.

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