Punishment After Prison

How Outdated State Regulations Are Preventing the Formerly Incarcerated from Re-entering the Labor Force

“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is a well-worn criminal justice cliche. Yet in many U.S. states, doing the time is only part of the challenge those convicted of felonies face. That’s because the repercussions of a criminal conviction extend far beyond the walls of a prison, and often make it difficult for the newly released to succeed on their own terms.

The Washington Post published a compelling feature story on this very issue on Sept. 3, detailing the challenges faced by a man named Meko Lincoln. Lincoln, a 46-year-old Rhode Island resident, has struggled with addition and has a lengthy criminal history. Yet he has also made significant strides not only toward improving his own life, but also helping others in the same situation.

Lincoln is sober, gainfully employed and training to become a chemical dependency clinician. He’s only a few classes short of his first college degree. However, his prospects at achieving his goal are clouded by one stubborn fact: Rhode Island, like many states, has stringent restrictions governing who can qualify for professional licensing.

Licensing boards in Rhode Island can deny licenses for past criminal behavior — even stretching back decades — without considering mitigating factors or efforts toward rehabilitation. This means that someone could commit a crime as a teenager, go on to live a productive life for 20 or 30 years, and still be unable to secure an occupational license.

According to the Washington Post, the rules governing licensing in many states are often arbitrary and ambiguous, leaving those seeking a licensed profession with little recourse.

The Effects of Restricted Licensing

Licensing boards control access to employment in fast-growing and relatively high-paying industries such as health care and mechanical trades. Licensing boards also control access to jobs in the counseling and human services sectors — an area to which those who have struggled with drug and alcohol dependency often gravitate.

Like Meko Jackson, many people with criminal histories and past addiction issues have an intense desire to help others in the same situation recover. They also believe they are especially well-positioned to offer that help, given their past experiences.

Without a professional license, however, these people are typically limited to low-level employment in the industry. Instead of working as a full-fledged clinician, they are permanently relegated to the respected — but significantly more underpaid — position of peer counselor.

Easing Lifetime Stigma

These licensing restrictions are one more challenge in addition to the other difficulties ex-prisoners face. Most face significant societal stigma and have a difficult time securing well-paying employment. A criminal conviction, under these circumstances, becomes a stain that does not wash away, regardless of how long ago the conviction occurred or how well the person has done in the intervening years.

An attempt by legislators in Rhode Island to make licensing requirements more forgiving and flexible toward former prisoners failed to pass the state’s General Assembly, after an amendment was attached that would have excluded violent offenders. Legislators told the Washington Post they plan to revive the bill this fall.

A dozen other states have introduced modest licensing reforms, allowing those with a conviction to secure licensing provided that their crime wasn’t related to the occupation they’re seeking.

For people like Meko Jackson, however, the wait for opportunity remains.

Finding the Right Criminal Law Attorney

At Goldstein Law, we’re committed to fighting for the rights of the accused and the convicted. Call us for a consultation if you need assistance.