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

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