KAHRYN RILEY: How 'Good Character' provisions create bad outcomes

States that make it harder for someone to work legally, typically through licensing requirements, tend to have higher levels of unemployment.

Two studies released this past November show how these barriers are a particular problem for ex-offenders, thereby increasing their likeliness to reoffend.

Scholars from Arizona State University and the Kaufmann studied the relationship between occupational licensing and recidivism. They discovered that states that require licenses for a greater number of jobs also experienced a higher recidivism rate. This suggests that efforts to reduce recidivism rates and other criminal justice reforms should take into consideration the impact of occupational licensing laws.

The authors note that many states are like Michigan in that they are working to improve their prison inmates’ re-entry preparedness by offering high school diplomas, college degrees and vocational training. But they point out that these programs are pointless if an inmate’s criminal record makes him ineligible for a license to work.

Many licensing laws contain morality clauses that prohibit anyone with a criminal conviction from ever receiving a license, even if their crime was nonviolent or completely unrelated to the type of work they would do. Other states do not use these morality clauses but allow their licensing boards to deny licenses to people with a criminal history. In Michigan, a felony record often makes a person ineligible for a license, and even a misdemeanor could damage someone’s chances of obtaining a license.

Making it harder for ex-offenders to be legally employed makes it more likely they’ll reoffend. As Stephen Slivinski, one of the authors of one of the studies, explains, “For ex-prisoners who have an unusually difficult experience scaling the barriers to entry in the labor market, returning to crime could be the better alternative.”

In other words, employers often refuse to hire anyone with a criminal record, which is their right. But if a person then wants to go work for themselves and cannot obtain a license to do such work, they could be permanently barred from re-entering the workforce in their most preferred profession.

In Michigan, about 88 percent of our 43,000 prisoners will eventually return to society. The Department of Corrections reports that only about a third of the formerly incarcerated who are n parole are currently employed, which is down from 2001 when over half the parolees had jobs. Reducing the burden of occupational licensing laws is one clear option for helping ex-offenders matriculate back into society, reducing the likelihood that they’ll reoffend.

Kahryn Riley is a Mackinac Center policy analyst. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan residents by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions.