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A newsletter from The Hechinger Report

By Olivia Sanchez


This week’s newsletter comes to you from my colleague Tara García Mathewson, who spent months looking into the obstacles people face upon leaving prison when they try to get licensed in certain career fields. We’re giving you a sneak peek of her findings. I’ll be back in your inbox in two weeks. 

By Tara García Mathewson 

For years, advocates have successfully pushed for more access to education for people in prison. This summer, the Department of Education announced a massive expansion of Pell grants for people pursuing higher education from behind bars. About 30,000 of these individuals are expected to get $130 million worth of the federal aid each year, a cost that researchers have found is far less than that of sending people back to prison another time.

We’ve known for a long time that higher education can play a huge role in helping people who serve time in prison get back on their feet. Research shows that higher-ed attainment is directly correlated with a lower likelihood of being reincarcerated, as is stable employment.

But people getting out of prison face many obstacles in finding jobs, and lack of educational opportunities is just part of the issue.  A patchwork of more than 14,000 federal, state and local laws and regulations restricts individuals who have arrest and conviction histories from getting licensed in certain fields. Here’s some of what my reporting found about how pervasive this problem is and why it matters:

  • Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, about one in five people in this country needs an occupational license to do their job — licenses they get only after completing a designated amount of training and education in their fields. Yet 31 states allow licensing boards to deny applicants based on their character alone for at least some occupations, leaving room for denials based on any criminal behavior, no matter how minor or how far in the past.

  • After leaving prison, some people are inadvertently steered toward training programs that, for them, are dead ends because of these restrictions.  In other cases, people have no choice but to go through time-consuming and often expensive courses before they can even apply for a license and find out whether they’ll be permitted to work in their chosen field. Just 21 states allow people with criminal records to ask licensing boards ahead of time whether their records will disqualify them from getting a license. 

  • Because the laws and regulations are so scattered, they can be difficult for anyone, not just those exiting prison, to navigate. In some states, people serving time can fight fires as part of a prison work crew but can’t get licenses to work as firefighters in local fire departments after they get out. They can cut hair in prison but can’t get cosmetology licenses on the outside. They can do landscaping on city property in a prison work crew, but — with a criminal record — can’t get a government job. 

  • There has been some progress. Forty states have eased or eliminated some of their laws keeping people with criminal records from getting employment licenses since 2015. 

My upcoming article is our second this year that uncovers major problems with the nation’s workforce training system. Earlier this year, Meredith Kolodner and Sarah Butrymowicz reported on the lack of oversight and accountability for unaccredited training programs that receive millions in federal money. 

Keep an eye out for a link to the full story in the Weekly Update newsletter by our editor in chief, Liz Willen, on Tuesday, or in the next edition of this newsletter. 

Do you have questions about these or similar kinds of barriers to earning career licenses? Do you have thoughts on where our coverage should go next? Let us know by replying directly to this email.

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