Earlier this week, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 637 the “Occupational Licensure Reform” bill. This bill modifies occupational licensing requirements by removing draconian criminal record restrictions for occupations regulated by boards and commissions within the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (BPOA). This move marks an important step forward in criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth.
According to Shannon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services, prior Pennsylvania law perpetuated racial disparities in arrests in the criminal justice system by disproportionately precluding persons of color out of licensed professions for convictions that occurred long ago and have no connection to the job.
Now, job applicants can only be denied employment based on convictions that are directly related to the profession they are applying to or demonstrate a substantial risk to coworkers. Prior to the bills passage, license applicants could be excluded for any felony, indefinitely. They could also be rejected based on vague phrases, like “moral turpitude” or “good moral character”. Now, job applicants who otherwise would be rejected due to prior criminal convictions, will have the opportunity to provide evidence of their fitness for the job. Automatic bans on licensure will be limited to sex crimes, serious violent offenses, and drug trafficking crimes.
Senate Bill 637 also requires the Commonwealth to publish a list of crimes that are directly related to each profession that will be evaluated during licensure decisions. The Department of State will also disseminate a guide to explain to potential applicants how prior convictions may affect the likelihood of obtaining a license. This guide will provide steps that applicants can take to prove they would not a “risk” to clients or coworkers. Additionally, prospective employees can now receive a preliminary decision on whether their prior convictions would preclude them from obtaining a license, prior to taking out student loans or enrolling in courses. Finally, Senate Bill 637 will permit restricted licenses for persons trained at taxpayer expense, such as aspiring barbers and cosmetologists who are trained in state correctional institutions.
Persons with criminal records are heavily stigmatized. Our justice system claims to allow persons the ability to pay back their debt to society through incarceration or other forms of punishment. In reality, a criminal conviction can negatively impact a person for their entire life. Job opportunities, housing and educational restrictions, are just a handful of the ways a criminal conviction can pose a direct threat to the success of someone who has already served their sentence. This is especially true of criminalized survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, who face the added stigma of having multiple prostitution and/or drug convictions.
While Pennsylvania’s vacatur law allows for certain trafficking-related convictions to be cleared by a judge, not all survivors are able to access this remedy and not all trafficking-related offenses are eligible to be cleared. There are serious procedural flaws in our vacatur law, the biggest being the “consent” requirement. Because the law requires a district attorney to consent to a vacatur petition being filed, survivors can and have been outright denied the ability to have a judge review their petition. Further, survivors have criminal convictions that go beyond what the Commonwealth’s vacatur law provides for. Many have retail theft, DUI, and assault charges from crimes they were forced to commit that vacatur cannot currently assist with. Therefore, Senate Bill 637 presents a tremendous step towards creating a fairer and more equitable Pennsylvania for everyone. We are all more than our past and its time our laws begin to adequately reflect that.