News Story

Bills Make Criminal Record Less Of A Bar To Occupational Licenses

‘An important step towards reducing crime and enhancing public safety,’ one advocate says

The state’s apparatus for issuing occupational licenses could soon get an overhaul from a package of bills recently introduced in the Legislature. The bills would impose greater transparency requirements on licensing authorities and prevent them from denying a license for a past criminal offense not directly related to the field of work a license applicant is trying to enter. This could open up hundreds of types of jobs to the 500,000 state residents with a criminal record.

House bills 4488-4492 would bar licensing boards and agencies from denying an occupational license due to a past civil action against an individual. They would also prevent licensing authorities from denying someone a license due to a past felony without first looking at other considerations. Those include whether the felony would have a direct negative effect on the individual’s ability to work within a particular field as well as how long ago the offense occurred.

House Bill 4493 would require the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to report to the Legislature, each year, the number of people denied a license due to a “lack of good moral character,” as well as the reasons for the denials. A similar bill package passed the House last year by a nearly unanimous vote. The Senate did not vote on it during the lame-duck session.

Michael Webber, R-Rochester, chairs the House Regulatory Reform Committee. He said that he plans to hold hearings on the bills soon. If they advance on from that committee, they will go to the Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township. Iden is the primary sponsor on the main bill in the package.

Iden said the legislature has been working to increase the state’s workforce and are taking a more nuanced approach lately.

"How do we get folks in these skilled roles? There is a workforce shortage. We need workers: not a week from now, not a month from now, but now,” he said.

“What I learned,” he said, “is that our corrections system was doing a great job of giving people training. ... Then they come out of prison to learn that the state won’t license them because of their previous criminal history.”

Iden said he believes that the bill package will have bipartisan support because many House Democrats voted for his legislation in 2018. He also thinks that the governor will be interested in it.

The bill package has an unusual base of support, drawn from a variety of groups like the ACLU of Michigan and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential. Similar legislation was supported in the last session by business groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and West Michigan Policy Forum. It also received support from conservative groups like the Michigan Freedom Foundation and Americans for Prosperity-Michigan and liberal groups like the Michigan League for Public Policy and Safe & Just Michigan.

“Reform to our occupational licensing laws is an important step towards reducing crime and enhancing public safety,” Kim Buddin, policy counsel for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement drawn from testimony previously delivered before the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee. “Studies have shown that returning citizens who are committed to changing their lives and are given a fair chance at employment are found to be some of the hardest working and most reliable employees with longevity at a single employer.”

Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center, wrote a study on occupational licensing in 2017. He believes that barring those with a criminal background from getting a license to work is often unjustified.

“In Michigan, many former offenders have struggled to become licensed because of these morality clauses, which apply to jobs like roofing, painting, installing gutters, floor sanding and more — even if the crime had no relation to the job,” Skorup said. “It doesn’t make sense that a 17-year-old who gets caught shoplifting shouldn’t be allowed to roof houses for the rest of his life or that a drug offense should keep someone from shampooing hair in a salon.”

Several people have testified to lawmakers about state licensing laws holding them back in the workforce. Gary Wozniak, a business owner who runs Recovery Park in Detroit, has been denied private and public sector opportunities because of crimes he committed three decades ago. A carpenter named Mike Grennan has been limited from legally working due to his past drug addiction. And a nurse who moved to Michigan from another state was denied a license due to a low-level from crime years ago, despite a judge declaring that he had rehabilitated himself.