Councilmember Charles Allen introduces bill removing barriers to employment for returning citizens

Last week, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) – along with his colleagues Councilmembers Bonds, Cheh, Grosso, McDuffie, Nadeau, and Robert White – introduced legislation to smooth the way for residents with criminal records to obtain occupational licenses in dozens of trades, including barbering, plumbing, electrical maintenance, and HVAC repair.

“We say we want people to successfully re-enter and lead productive lives, but I’m not sure everyone realizes just how hard it is to find meaningful employment with any kind of record,” said Councilmember Allen. “Returning citizens who have hope and have purpose, which comes in part from the stability of a regular paycheck, are much less likely to reoffend. Being licensed in a trade is a path to economic security. ”

In the District, licenses are required to practice dozens of common occupations, such as barber, cosmetologist, electrician, plumber, funeral director, refrigeration mechanic, real estate agent, and athletic trainer. Nationally, 1 out of every 5 Americans needs an occupational license to work.

The District’s existing standard for disqualification is archaic and vague. Licenses can be denied for convictions for “crimes involving moral turpitude”, which means a crime that “offends the generally accepted moral code of mankind; is one of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the conduct of the private and social duties that an individual owes to his or her fellow man or to society in general; or is one of conduct contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals.” Under such an expansive standard, it would be difficult to ever admit an applicant with any criminal history.

Ensuring returning citizens can transition home and into steady careers is a critical part of preventing recidivism.

What the Bill Does

The Removing Barriers to Occupational Licensing for Returning Citizens Amendment Act of 2019 creates a standard across licensing boards for evaluating license applications, suspensions, and denials by limiting the types of criminal history information that a board can consider. It requires that a board only use criminal history information that is directly related to the job, based on certain factors, including:

  • The time that has passed since the conviction;
  • Whether the crime relates to the job duties and responsibilities; and
  • Mitigating and rehabilitative evidence.

Notably, the bill does not require boards to accept all applications – instead, it creates a standard process across licensing boards to fairly and uniformly evaluate applications or disqualify current license holders based on criminal history.

Like “ban the box” legislation in the context of housing and employment, the bill reconsiders the notion that a person should be disqualified out of the gate – in this instance, from an occupational license – based solely on the fact that they have a criminal record.

Since 2015, 27 states have reformed their occupational licensing laws to make it easier for returning citizens to find work in licensed fields.

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