STATE HOUSE – The General Assembly today approved legislation to prevent Rhode Islanders from being denied an occupational license because of an unrelated criminal conviction. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Harold M. Metts and Rep. Scott A. Slater, said the legislation is intended to reform a system that has perpetuated poverty by preventing people with a criminal history — even for relatively minor crimes that occurred decades ago —from getting jobs that can truly support themselves and their families.

“This is common-sense reform of a system that isn’t serving the public the way it should. It’s not protecting anyone to deny someone a license to work in a job because of a criminal record for an offense that has no bearing on that job. This is a system that helps perpetuate poverty in the community, making it so that once a person messes up, they face roadblocks that keep them down for the rest of their lives. People who have turned their lives around and want to work and support themselves and their families should have every available opportunity to do that, without senseless barriers,” said Representative Scott A. Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence).

The legislation (2020-S 2824A, 2020-H 7947A) develops a standardized process by which only convictions directly related to the duties of the licensed occupation can be considered in the application for a professional license; provides guidance on how those records should be considered when an application is being reviewed; and creates a more transparent decision-making and notification process.

“There needs to be a more-nuanced, less-punitive approach to licensing. If the purpose of prison system is really supposed to be rehabilitation, someone who’s been there shouldn’t face a lifetime of discrimination in their efforts to find meaningful employment and become a contributing member of our society. Most people who go to prison are already facing numerous challenges like systemic poverty, housing insecurity, mental health issues and a lack of educational opportunities. The licensing system shouldn’t be another,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence), a deacon in the Congdon Street Baptist Church who regularly participates in prison ministry. “When we talk about systematic oppression, this is a piece of that system. We’re dismantling that piece in Rhode Island with this bill. I’m extremely proud and grateful for the change of heart reflected in our justice policy initiatives. From a mindset of punishment in the 1980s, we are changing course to reconciliation, restoration and giving people a second chance.”

For Rhode Islanders who have been involved in the criminal justice system, occupational licensing restrictions pose a serious barrier to meaningful employment. Many of the entry-level jobs in some of the state’s fastest growing sectors require occupational licenses. Over 70 percent of the occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as “lower-income” require a license. Even some professions for which Rhode Islanders can receive training and certification while incarcerated are closed to people returning home because of how licensing agencies explicitly use criminal records to exclude otherwise qualified candidates.

The legislation prohibits state agencies that review occupational license applications from denying them based solely or partly on a prior conviction of a crime that is not substantially related to the occupation for which the license is sought. If an applicant does have a prior conviction that relates to the occupation, the legislation requires that the licensing authority consider numerous factors: public safety, the interests of encouraging employment of formerly incarcerated individuals, whether the crime relates to the applicant’s ability to responsibly participate in the occupation, the time that has elapsed since the conviction and the applicant’s age at the time of the crime, as well as evidence the applicant can provide to demonstrate sufficient rehabilitation and present fitness to perform the job.

The legislation has the support of a coalition of more than 30 community-based organizations, including Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, the Economic Progress Institute and Amos House.

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