Higher education has an important role to play when it comes to providing information to students searching for educational programs that leads to a license or certification. In that light, what information should be provided by the institution to formerly incarcerated students who are looking for professional or licensure programs? While some states do have barriers that this student group must, many do not prohibit these students from accessing certain programs and may want to ensure they are providing the required and helpful information when needed.

We often hear the U.S. Department of Education (Department) express concern for a student’s “worthless degree.” Such a descriptor is typically applied when a student cannot gain employment in their chosen field. Public disclosures regarding state prohibitions to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals were addressed recently in new regulations for prison education programs for currently incarcerated individuals receiving Pell Grants. However, the question remains: how should colleges and universities support formerly incarcerated students who have enrolled at their institution? Many of these students need assistance and guidance to navigate the various state laws and processes to make informed decisions about education and career goals. Additionally, how can we support the students without requiring them to self-identify as formerly incarcerated individuals?

The State Authorization Network (SAN), as an organization that regularly addresses state variation of laws and regulations, determined that since states differ so widely, we should begin to address the differences and similarities of rules and regulations for licensed professions for employment of formerly incarcerated individuals. To pursue an initial review of the variations, SAN obtained the assistance of two undergraduate interns to compare a sample set of state rules, with the sample representing each region of the United States. We are pleased to welcome our guest contributors, Charisma Barrow and Chrischen Thompson, to share their findings on state processes and opportunities. 

As you will see from the interns’ preliminary research, states vary, as expected. However, what is consistent is that there are prohibitions for employment based on the incarceration status of the student. These students would have difficulty navigating the variations and requirements and may ultimately pursue a degree program for which they would be prohibited from seeking employment in the occupation. We hope that by sharing this preliminary research, institutions will consider how they share program information publicly to avert student disappointment if they encounter barriers to employment after completing the educational program.

Analysis by Charisma Barrow, Fayetteville State University

Researching the occupational licensing restrictions for recently incarcerated individuals in a specific set of states reveals variation in such restrictions among the states. The states analyzed in this section include:

  • California,
  • Minnesota,
  • New Jersey, and,
  • Wyoming,

State Comparisons

California stands out with its lenient approach, allowing inquiries into criminal history primarily when mandated by law or for positions in criminal justice. In contrast, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming impose stricter restrictions, often barring individuals from professions directly related to their convictions. For example, Minnesota restricts those convicted of offenses involving vulnerable adults from working in nursing homes, while New Jersey’s broad exclusions encompass various crimes of moral turpitude, which impacts a wide range of occupations. Wyoming’s rules also reflect a direct connection between the nature of the offense and professional duties, with long-term bans in place for certain severe crimes. Each state, however, offers programs to support the reintegration of ex-offenders into the workforce, highlighting efforts to balance public safety with the goal of reducing recidivism through gainful employment.

California

California has the most lenient restrictions when it comes to recently incarcerated individuals. Employers can only ask about an individual’s criminal history if the employer is a criminal justice agency, or a state or local agency required by law to conduct a criminal background check. A history of felonies, misdemeanors, and arrests are permitted to be requested for up to 7 years after conviction. Employers in California cannot inquire about marijuana convictions that are more than 2 years old. Juvenile criminal records are also off-limits to employers.

Recently, the California Workforce Development Board (CWDB) announced new opportunities in the state for training, education, career opportunities, and other supportive services for formerly incarcerated or otherwise justice related residents.

Minnesota

In the states of Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming, a person can be barred from obtaining a license in a profession that directly corresponds to a previous conviction. For example, in Minnesota, if the offense involved a vulnerable adult, the individual would likely be unable to work in any position in a nursing home or group home. This also includes other occupations such as working security or law enforcement if the crime had anything to do with firearms. If the crime included money, the individual would be barred from working at a bank or other financial institution.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is working to help mitigate these barriers by assisting individuals who have criminal records in finding sustained, gainful employment to produce savings and other benefits for both the ex-offenders and society.

New Jersey

The New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners and the New Jersey Bar will revoke or not allow a license to individuals convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. These crimes include sexual assault, theft, domestic violence, fraud, forgery, theft, endangering the welfare of a child, manslaughter, tax evasion, and bribery. Those convicted of drug crimes and other offenses under the category of “moral turpitude” are barred by law from many positions, from public employees and firefighters to insurance adjusters. Said individuals would also be barred from obtaining a teaching license if they are guilty of all first and second-degree crimes, sexual offenses, certain drug offenses, and crimes against children. Many former prisoners will also have their driver’s license suspended 6 months to up to 2 years.

One way New Jersey is helping those impacted by these barriers is through the state’s career services. Here, they can help remove some of the common barriers to employment for ex-offenders, assisting with issues such as driver’s license restoration, referrals to community mental health programs, job search preparation classes that take place at halfway house facilities, and community release programs under Parole supervision.

Wyoming

In the state of Wyoming, a prior conviction cannot be considered regarding employment if the convictions are more than 20 years old, with a few exceptions. These exceptions include the person still being under a sentence, or the sentence was completed fewer than 10 years ago if the offense is “directly related to the specific duties and responsibilities of that profession or occupation.” Examples of this include convictions of violent crimes or sexual misconduct. In that case, that person will be barred from occupations such as teaching, being a guide, being a social worker, being a family or marriage counselor, being a nurse, chiropractor, or dental hygienist.

Wyoming’s Department of Corrections (WDOC) has implemented a release planning program for recently incarcerated individuals. Release planning includes several aspects, such as treatment, housing, supervision, employment, education, healthcare, and other services. The WDOC develops a transition plan by assessing the individual’s risk for recidivism and their treatment needs. Offenders identified as medium to high risk/special needs will have enhanced case management services, including additional release consultations, referrals, assistance with community transition, and additional case planning to address special needs and individual risk. The WDOC offers competency-based coursework designed to help students improve academic, vocational, or life skills.

Conclusion – Regulatory Spectrum for Supporting Students

In conclusion, the research into occupational licensing restrictions for recently incarcerated individuals across California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming reveals a spectrum of regulatory approaches. California stands out for its leniency, allowing inquiries into criminal history primarily in positions mandated by law to conduct background checks. In contrast, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming impose stricter regulations, often barring individuals from certain professions directly related to their offenses. These states also offer various programs aimed at mitigating employment barriers for ex-offenders. The initiatives discussed above highlight ongoing efforts to balance public safety with rehabilitation and reintegration, underscoring the need for nuanced policies that support successful reentry while addressing societal concerns.

Analysis by Chrischen Thompson, University of Texas (UT)

This analysis examines the criminal justice reforms and barriers to reentry faced by individuals with criminal records in five U.S. states:

  • Colorado,
  • the District of Columbia (D.C.),
  • Louisiana,
  • Massachusetts, and,
  • Oklahoma.

State Comparisons

Each state presents unique challenges and approaches to addressing the complex issues surrounding reintegration into society for those with past convictions. By impartially examining their policies, reforms, and initiatives, we aim to highlight similarities, differences, and notable aspects while considering the need for a balanced approach that promotes rehabilitation and public safety.

Colorado

Colorado faces challenges in ensuring fair access to higher education and occupational licensing for individuals with criminal records.

Specific requirements based on sentence length and the disclosure of criminal histories during the college admission process hinder opportunities for incarcerated individuals.

Additionally, the absence of formal agreements for credit transfer complicates the reentry process for those seeking to continue their education (Johnson, 2020). While advocating for policy changes to expand educational opportunities, Colorado recognizes the importance of public safety considerations and may impose certain limitations based on the nature of offenses. Notable reforms include advocating for policy changes to abolish limits on sentence length for accessing postsecondary programs and prioritizing federal funding for education in correctional facilities.

District of Columbia (D.C.)

D.C. confronts substantial occupational licensing and postsecondary education obstacles for individuals with criminal records. Strict licensing regulations and limited access to federal financial aid exacerbate the challenges of reentry into society. However, community-based organizations and legal aid clinics are crucial in providing support and resources (Miller, 2019). D.C.’s approach includes advocating for policy changes to reform licensing laws and incorporating occupational licensing considerations into reentry planning while maintaining appropriate safeguards for public safety. Significant aspects of D.C.’s approach include advocating for policy changes to reform licensing laws and incorporating occupational licensing considerations into reentry planning.

Louisiana

Louisiana faces significant postsecondary education and occupational licensing barriers for individuals with criminal records. Strict occupational licensing regulations and moral turpitude clauses pose challenges, particularly in professions crucial to public safety and welfare. While supporting the rights of individuals with criminal histories through advocacy organizations, Louisiana also recognizes the necessity of considering public safety concerns when granting licenses for certain professions. Notable aspects include advocacy organizations such as Operation Restoration and Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), which both support the rights of individuals with criminal histories.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts has emerged as a leader in criminal justice reform, implementing strategies to remove barriers for individuals with criminal records seeking education and licensure opportunities. Example reforms include banning work placement denials based on convictions over five years old and preventing the use of certain criminal records in decision-making processes (Jones, 2020). It is essential to consider the nature and severity of infractions to strike a balance between promoting rehabilitation and upholding public safety standards. Massachusetts’ commitment to legal aid and advocacy organizations, reentry programs, and state-level policy reforms demonstrates a comprehensive framework for addressing barriers to education and licensure.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma has undertaken significant criminal justice reforms to reduce barriers for individuals with criminal records seeking education and occupational licenses. Notable reforms include banning work placement denials based on convictions over five years old and preventing the use of certain criminal records (Brown, 2019). While promoting reentry opportunities, the state maintains certain limitations and restrictions based on the severity of offenses, recognizing the importance of public safety considerations. Oklahoma’s focus on appeal rights for individuals with restricted licenses and data collection and reporting requirements highlights its commitment to transparency and accountability in the licensing process.

Comparative Analysis: Recognizing Common Themes and Differences

Different criminal justice reform approaches and reentry barriers are heterogeneous, especially across the five states included in this sample, but similarities can also be seen among others.  all of the states in this analysis emphasize discussion and consideration of the obstacles to attaining education and employment for people with criminal backgrounds and propose a balanced position addressing safety concerns at the same time.

Fairness and inclusivity in the resettlement process are two significant issues that have been repeatedly raised, as described in the development of state initiatives previously described, necessitating policy reforms and legal reforms to ensure justice. Some of the states have been successful through policy advocacy and law reform, such as Colorado, D. C., and Massachusetts. States like Louisiana and Oklahoma have adopted a different approach centered on community participation and supportive services that aim to remove systems of inequality and barriers to future employment.

Another reoccurring feature in this state sample was a focus on gathering and using data. Dealing with the collection and reporting of information is crucial for objective assessment of the challenges in each state and the impact of their initiatives. States like Massachusetts and Oklahoma are data-centric in their approach to continuous improvement of criminal checks on applicants by developing data collection and reporting capacity. This is part of the broader reforms they are initiating.

Although diverging programs and plans are adopted by individual states, there is still a general idea that is commonplace for all: the balance of supportive formerly incarcerated individuals and public safety concerns (Smith, 2020). For example, the Massachusetts ban using five-year or older convictions for workplace decisions, while also having safety measures in place in cases involving crimes likely to be detrimental to public peace.

By comparing each of these five states, we can see thatpeople with criminal pasts get the same opportunities as others, but will have different routes and hurdles to overcome when trying to complete their education and receive occupational licensing. Other states can draw inspiration from the fundamental matter of interest that all of these states hold, to ensure a smooth reintegration process for those living in their state who have served their sentences. In addition, these states can give concrete power to implement restrictions and regulations based on the nature and seriousness of the crime so that public security is safeguarded. The government uses different approaches and engagements to construct a support platform for releasing the prisons, with the essential well-being of the general society as the top priority simultaneously.

Next Steps from SAN

Licensure issues are complex, and we know it is important to support all students effectively in pursuing their career goals. Although this post did not address the new professional licensure regulations and amended notifications that will become effective in a few weeks (July 1, 2024!), SAN wants to remind you that we’ve got your back.

On our website, you will find a complete index of links to SAN compliance resources for professional licensure: SAN Compliance Resources to Address Federal Regulations for Programs Leading to a License (2024). Also, look for the 2nd Edition of the SAN Professional Licensure Handbook to be released soon!

Related to the analysis offered today, in the next year, SAN intends to offer a follow-up post here on WCET Frontiers that will consider the ethical responsibilities of institutions to provide public disclosures to inform undocumented students enrolling in programs that lead to a license or certification addressing state barriers to a license or employment. Additionally, SAN will provide more on the state prohibitions to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. The Department’s regulation addressing eligible prison education programs is an initial model for disclosures. Effective July 1, 2023, in addition to other disclosure requirements required in federal regulations, 34 CR 668.43(a)(5)(vi) directs that an institution must provide a disclosure if the prison education program leads to a license or certification when there is a prohibition on the licensure or employment of the formerly incarcerated individuals in any other state. We plan to communicate with and share example processes from institutions that provide public disclosures to inform prospective and enrolled students of barriers and prohibitions.

Thank you to the SAN interns! Great job! More coming in 2025!


Charisma Barrow

Intern, SAN

Cheryl Dowd

Senior Director, State Authorization Network & WCET Policy Innovations


cdowd@wiche.edu

LinkedIn Profile

Work Cited

  • Brown, Sarah. “Leading the Way: Massachusetts’ Comprehensive Approach to Criminal Justice Reform.” Journal of Public Policy and Administration, vol. 15, no. 1, 2019, pp. 55–72.
  • Director’s Comments (Personal Communication, May 16, 2024).
  • Johnson, Michael. (2020). “Confronting Licensing Challenges in Louisiana: A Case Study.” Criminal Justice Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 112–128.
  • Jones, Michael. “Reforms in Criminal Justice: A Comparative Study of Five U.S. States.” Criminal Justice Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 2020, pp. 29–44.
  • Miller, Sarah. “Supporting Reentry: Role of Community-Based Organizations in Five U.S. States.” Journal of Social Services, vol. 12, no. 2, 2019, pp. 68–84.
  • Smith, Jane. “Overcoming Occupational Licensing Barriers in the District of Columbia.” Journal of Criminal Justice Policy, vol. 18, no. 4, 2021, pp. 87–102.
  • White, Kimberly. “Challenges and Opportunities for Reentry: Comparative Analysis of Five U.S. States’ Approaches.” Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 27, no. 4, 2017, pp. 42–58.

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