Erica Smith: Good-character requirements violate rights
Rejected for lacking “good- moral character.” That was what the letter said from the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology to Courtney Haveman. Haveman had just spent thousands of dollars on beauty school learning to become an esthetician. She had enjoyed learning how to do facials, waxing, tweezing and more. She was ready to take the test to get her license. She even had a job at a salon waiting for her.
It seemed like a solid career that would help her move beyond a troubled past. Three years earlier, Haveman had struggled with alcohol abuse. She wasn’t the same person when she drank. Eventually, her behavior led to a few misdemeanor convictions. That was when she turned her life around. She joined a 12-step program, where she found the man who would become her husband, and each day they worked to keep each other strong.
When Haveman applied for her Pennsylvania esthetician’s license, she didn’t know about the “good moral character” requirement. She would find out later that, in Pennsylvania, barber applicants aren’t subject to the same standard. With the rejection letter in hand and few resources to fight back, she almost gave up on her goal. And although a setback like that may have sent another person down a bad path, Haveman stayed strong and today is the mother of an energetic baby boy.
But now Haveman may not have to watch her education go to waste. Haveman and another Pennsylvania woman also rejected for an esthetician’s license, Amanda Spillane, are teaming up with The Institute for Justice to sue the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology and protect their right to earn an honest living. Haveman’s and Spillane’s past run-ins with the law have nothing to do with their present ability to work in cosmetology. And they shouldn’t be subject to a higher standard than barbers. If you don’t need good character to shave a hair, why do you need it to tweeze one?
Haveman and Spillane are just two among dozens of women rejected by the board in recent years. And in Pennsylvania, there are similar good-character requirements for jobs ranging from landscape architect to poultry technician. Nationwide, there are tens of thousands of laws that prevent people from getting jobs because of their criminal histories.
These laws aren’t working. One in three Americans has a criminal record. Hundreds of thousands of people leave prison every year. You may know some: A recent study found that one in two Americans has a family member who has served time. Those people need jobs.
But when states make it harder to get a license, reoffending tends to increase. Widespread consensus — from conservative think tanks to the Obama administration — has deemed these laws ineffective and unfair. It’s one thing to prevent embezzlers from becoming accountants. But if the crime doesn’t relate to the job, it’s not right to deny licenses to people who are just trying to provide for themselves.
Fifty years ago, only one in 20 Americans needed a license to legally work. According to a recent Institute for Justice study, one in five Americans need a license today. And many of these licensed occupations would be a good fit for someone coming out of prison. In fact, cosmetology is taught in Pennsylvania prisons. It doesn’t make sense to spend time and money teaching inmates skills they can’t use when they get out.
This good-character requirement is not just bad policy — it also violates Haveman’s and Spillane’s rights. The commonwealth’s constitution guarantees people the right to work in their chosen jobs, free of unreasonable restrictions.
This is a hopeful time of year. A time when we reflect on the past and plan for the future. For Haveman’s and Spillane’s part, they are hopeful that Pennsylvania courts will see the injustice of the current law and light the way on their path to better lives.
Erica Smith is an attorney at The Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit public-interest law firm that protects the right to earn an honest living.