WASHINGTON – Robert Lewis didn’t think it would be hard to get a job selling insurance. He was a car salesman for decades and sold insurance after graduating from college. But in his home state of Illinois, felons can’t get a license to sell insurance. And in 1985, Lewis was arrested for felony theft.
Lewis says he long ago kicked the drug habit that led to his arrest, and now the 62-year-old can often be found running around after his grandchildren. “I was a whole other person back then,” he said of his brush with the law. But the criminal record derailed his recent job application.
In Illinois, residents with felony convictions can’t be riverboat owners or horse meat processors. A criminal record can disqualify acupuncturists, auctioneers, boxing referees, interior designers and massage therapists.
In all, 118 professional, occupational and business licenses must or may be denied to felons, according to a 2012 report.
Now Illinois is among a handful of states reconsidering their licensing rules and giving men and women like Lewis a chance. It’s drawing support across the political spectrum as lawmakers try to get more people with criminal records into jobs.
In Kentucky, legislators included changes to licensing in a bill that would also create work-release programs at jails and reduce some probation and parole terms. In Nebraska, a Libertarian senator proposed rolling back licensing restrictions for all state residents — including those with criminal records — in a bid to improve conditions for businesses.
“There’s now a marriage of interests,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm. “It’s something that both sides can get their head around — it’s the great Rooseveltian idea that the best social program is a job.”
Research shows that ex-offenders who are employed are less likely to get into trouble with the law again. The Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit, says that even health care employers, who have been wary of hiring people with a criminal history, have become open to doing so. “They’re at a point where they can no longer turn away people,” said Sodiqa Williams, a vice president at the nonprofit.
About 86 million U.S. residents are named in the FBI’s criminal database. Almost 1 in 3 U.S. workers needs an occupational license to do their job. And a criminal record can disqualify job seekers from thousands of licensed positions.
On average, each state has 56 occupational licensing and 43 business licensing laws that ban applicants with felony convictions, according to the Alliance for a Just Society, a network of nonprofits.
Illinois state Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. sponsored a law last year that forbade the state from disqualifying aspiring funeral directors, roofers, barbers, cosmetologists, hair braiders and nail technicians solely because of a criminal conviction — unless the conviction directly related to the job. The bill also requires licensing entities to consider mitigating factors, such as the time that’s passed since the conviction, before denying or revoking a professional license.
In Kentucky, a criminal justice bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield would prevent state licensing entities from rejecting applicants for a conviction that is not relevant to the license being sought. Ex-offenders would also get a hearing before they’re denied a license.
And in Nebraska, a bill from Libertarian Sen. Laura Ebke that would let the state eliminate unnecessary licenses also mentions access for ex-offenders. “The goal is to really take a global look at how we’re licensing, how we’re regulating occupations, and see if there’s a way for us to rethink that,” Ebke said.