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Occupational Licensing Reform is a Criminal Justice Issue

| October 1, 2012

The Atlantic published a great article last month titled “How Licensing Laws Kill Jobs.” The article calls on states to promote employment and economic growth through licensing regulation reform. But senseless, overly burdensome licensing requirements are not only harming the economy, they are also harming the criminal justice system by wasting prosecutorial resources on trivial “crimes” and by preventing ex-offenders from re-entering the work-force.

Licensing, within reasonable limits, can be a good way to ensure that potentially dangerous work is done safely and properly. That said, there are now more than 800 occupations that require a license in at least one state. Almost one out of every three workers needs an occupational license. This is not because one in three jobs is dangerous or the public demands government regulation of the profession. Instead, it is largely the result of industry lobbying for laws that limit competition.

Licensing requirements vary tremendously from state to state, further evidence that many of the licensing schemes are not targeted at specific, targeted health and safety problems that need to be regulated. For example, a manicurist in Alaska must have three days of training, but in Alabama, 163 days of training are required.  There does not appear to be any evidence that manicures in Alaska are vastly riskier to public health than manicures in Alabama.

Some of the licensing requirements would be laughable, if only they didn’t hurt so many people.  One needless cosmetology licensing scheme in Utah prevented Jestina Clayton from braiding hair because she didn’t have a cosmetology license. Clayton is a refugee from Sierra Leone with an expertise in hair braiding—a subject that is not taught in the Utah cosmetology coursework.

In five states, shampooers require licensing. In Texas, a 2008 law required computer repair technicians to be licensed as private investigators.  In Louisiana, florists need to be licensed. In Oregon, even a little girl’s lemonade stand was shut down because she wasn’t licensed.

These licensing schemes are preventing thousands, of people from working.  Note, for instance, that when Mississippi changed its licensing requirement for braiders to a registration requirement, more than 300 braiders registered.

In addition to damaging the economy, these policies play a harmful role in the criminal justice system.  First, many licensing requirements have an unnecessary criminal penalty—subjecting violators to heavy fines and even jail time.  Unlicensed shampooers should not be treated as criminals. Criminal prosecutions for such violations are a waste of valuable state resources.

Second, many of the professions that have high entry barriers due to licensing requirements are often excellent professions for ex-offenders trying to put their lives back together. Careers as locksmiths, cosmetologists, or florists are in demand among ex-offenders seeking to become productive, tax-paying members of society.

Every state in America needs to review its existing licensing laws, and legislatures need to determine whether the requirements are actually serving the purpose licensing is meant to further—public safety.  In many instances, viable alternatives—such as registration, inspections, or private certification—are readily available.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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