Commentary

Should A Past Crime Bar Someone From Becoming A Roofer?

Michigan gets poor grades on licensing laws that keep reformed criminals unemployed

Michigan requires anyone who seeks to hold any one of a number of different jobs to get an occupational license, which in returns meeting “good moral character” requirements that can prohibit someone with a criminal record from entering a trade. The requirement applies to roofers, auto mechanics, barbers and others.

Research has shown that easing the path to employment is one of the best ways to prevent those with a criminal record from becoming repeat offenders. But Michigan law limits the ability of reformed criminals to work in nearly 20% of all jobs in the state.

Barred from Working is the title of an occupational licensing scorecard published by the Institute for Justice, which gives each state a grade on how fairly its licensing laws treat applicants with a criminal background. Michigan earned a C.

According to the scorecard, the state's licensing laws fail to give due process to applicants with a criminal record, earning Michigan a D on that part of the scorecard. Licensing boards here also do not give applicants the right to appeal a decision, and the laws do not specify which party bears the burden of proof in licensure hearings. Michigan scored better in the categories of relevance and exclusion, where it earned a C and a B-, respectively.

The relevance category evaluates whether a restriction based on having a criminal background is relevant to a particular profession. Under current law, an applicant can be denied a license for having a criminal record that is “reasonably related” to the occupation being sought. The rules do not specify that a certain period of time must have passed since the crime was committed for it to be relevant. They also do not consider applicant’s employment history or age at the time he or she committed a crime, and they do not require character witnesses when an agency assesses a license application.

But even in the category where Michigan performed the best, exclusion, the scorecard highlights a critical flaw: While licenses cannot be denied solely on grounds of an applicant having a criminal record, the law does allow licensing boards to deny applicants on a vaguely defined basis of “lack of good moral character.” This is a device in the law that may be used to deny a license to someone with record, for no concrete reason.

According to Nick Sibilla, author of the report, regulations like these have contributed to a 27% unemployment rate in the state among individuals who have a criminal record, even before the pandemic. “On average,” wrote in a Detroit News opinion piece, “a license for lower-income occupations [requires] Michiganders to complete 255 days of training and experience, pay $242 in fees, and pass two exams. The thicket of red tap and onerous mandates costs the Michigan economy nearly $8 billion a year in goods and services, and reduces overall employment in the state by some 80,000 jobs, according to a separate study from the Institute for Justice.”

This “thicket of red tape” is often impregnable for those with a criminal record, even if nothing in that record suggests the person is a threat to public safety or is unable to do the job properly. Employment, Sibilla explains, is one of the best ways to prevent recidivism, and yet Michigan’s laws seem to make it unnecessarily difficult for former criminals to build a career.

Efforts have been underway here to correct these problems in the law. Former Gov. Rick Snyder issued an executive order directing state license bureaus to stop asking applicants about criminal offenses. A bipartisan package of bills would change the law to deny occupational licenses only if an individual’s criminal history is clearly and specifically relevant the occupation the person wants to enter. “With this more stringent standard,” Sibilla said, “licensing boards may disqualify only those who would truly pose a threat to public safety if licensed.”

He argues that license reform is a matter of fairness that can reduce recidivism and crime rates across the state.

“A past mistake should not prevent someone from being able to shampoo hair or put up gutters for a living. But that is the reality,” said Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the author of two studies on occupational licensure.