The ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ incarcerates more people than any other country on the face of the planet. It does that while solving less than 60% of homicides, locking up around 6% of rapists, and spending (on average) $45,771 per prisoner each year.
Read between the numbers and what that spells out is that we spend oodles of taxpayer dollars to lock-up nonviolent offenders, many of them for victimless crimes each year. There are many reasons for that, predominantly, the nanny state Republicans and Democrats who have crafted laws that criminalize everything from smoking a plant to not paying your parking tickets.
But on top of that is the fact that our incarceration-happy nation has erected a number of legal barriers that make it really hard to simply get out of jail, get a job, and put your life back together once you have been caught up in the justice system. Many states prohibit people with a record from getting an occupational license, which is a mostly silly requirement in the first place—forcing people to pay the government simply for the “privilege” of working.
But that has a seismic impact on those looking for work after a conviction as about 30% of all jobs require this permission slip nowadays. And when people with a conviction can’t get work that means they can’t pay back their fees and fines or live above book, thus often forcing people back into the prisons they had just escaped.
In fact, almost 44% of people go back to prison within their first year out—and it’s not because all of these people are just hardened prisoners. It’s because our system fails to rehabilitate them, and on the back end, often leaves them without options to get back on the straight and narrow.
Fortunately for South Carolinians, their Republican legislature just took a major swing at this absolute nonsense.
The legislature passed H3605 this week, a measure that will ensure individuals with a criminal record will no longer be randomly blocked from obtaining an occupational license to work merely because of their past. The language says the bill will “prohibit the denial of a license based solely or in part on a prior criminal conviction in certain circumstances” to be exact.
Further language in the legislation clarifies that it will be the law of the land “unless the criminal conviction directly relates to the duties, responsibilities, or fitness of the occupation or profession for which the applicant is seeking a license.” So if you have a record for breaking and entering you still probably can’t become a locksmith for example.
This is such a common sense advancement that it really shouldn’t be the giant breath of fresh air that it is. However, given the state of things in the US, it’s actually a tremendous piece of criminal justice reform that will ensure people aren’t needlessly sent back to jail and that we let people simply try to do the right thing.
Shoshana Weissmann, a Fellow for the R Street Institute and national expert on occupational licensing laws said, “This legislation is a major step forward in ensuring that people don’t lose the ability to get a better-paying job because of an unrelated conviction.” Weissmann continued, “Good moral character or ‘moral turpitude’ regulations are catch-alls that can prevent people from getting a license to work for unrelated reasons. Banning use of arbitrary and generic terms here is a huge win.”
The legislation is headed to the governor’s desk to sign, so it still faces one final hurdle. But prospects in the Palmetto State are looking up.
Hannah is a Fellow at Americans for Prosperity, an organization that works on criminal justice reform.