Lawmakers want to strike ‘good moral character’ from occupational licensing criteria |
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Deb Erdley

A bipartisan coalition of Pennsylvania lawmakers wants to eliminate the requirement that applicants to 23 state occupational licensing boards be of “good moral character.”

The proposal comes on the heels of a lawsuit the Institute for Justice filed late last year challenging the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology’s decision to deny two women with old criminal records the opportunity to take its licensing examination based on the character standard.

The so-called PA Fresh Start lawsuit, which is working its way through the Commonwealth Court, calls the requirement vague, discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The proposed measure that is scheduled to be introduced Wednesday in Harrisburg in both the state House and Senate would standardize and limit the number of conditions governing the suspension, revocation or denial of occupational licenses for ex-cons. It also would direct boards and commissions to consider the nature of the offense, the amount of time that has passed since the conviction, evidence of the applicant’s fitness to practice the occupation among other factors.

Lawyers appealing the cosmetology board’s ruling said officials on that board have yet to defend its stand.

“The (Cosmetology) Board hasn’t yet tried to explain why cosmetology applicants should have to prove that they’re good people. Instead, it’s filed procedural objections saying our lawsuit should be dismissed for technical reasons. Most of the Board’s argument is that our clients should spend time, money, and energy going through the application process again just in case the Board changes its mind,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute.

The nonprofit organization is looking at laws across the country that pose barriers to employment for those with prior criminal records.

Those efforts come as criminal justice reform measures at the state and federal level aim to reduce incarceration and provide paths to reintegrate ex-offenders back into society.

Advocates argue some licensing requirements are keeping qualified, well-trained individuals out of occupations facing manpower shortages.

“One of our staff wrote an op-ed about California where prisoners can volunteer to fight fires, but if the prisoner is released it is almost impossible to get an EMT license that is required for first responders,” Institute for Justice spokesman Andrew Weimer said.

State Reps. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia and the Democratic whip, and Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, are co-sponsoring the proposed change in licensing requirements in the state House, while state Sens. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin/Perry, and Judy Schwank, D-Berks, will introduce it in the Senate.

Weimer said Florida recently passed a similar measure aimed at ending what criminal justice reform advocates call the collateral damage that stems from criminal convictions when ex-cons who have done their time find themselves barred from employment.

In Pennsylvania, where professional boards and commissions oversee licensing for more than 1 million licensees, such a measure could have wide-ranging impacts.

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