Tuesday, March 27, 2018

By Ann Radtke

Nearly 1 in 4 Hoosier adults have an arrest or conviction record, but many occupations in Indiana currently have a blanket license ban that permanently locks out people with records, no matter how old or how unrelated the record is from the job at hand. The General Assembly just took a step to remove barriers to some of these licenses, but needs to do more to unlock opportunities to give returning Hoosiers a fair chance at family-sustaining jobs.

Nationwide, an estimated 70 million Americans have criminal records, and 1.19 million are Hoosiers. In 2015 alone, Indiana released 16,074 people from prison or jail. People with criminal backgrounds face many barriers to employment, and are often relegated to low-wage, low-skill jobs regardless of actual skill or ability. Obtaining quality employment provides the essential foundation a person needs to get back on track and reform their life. 

Occupational licenses are the gateway for many vocations, a gate that is often locked shut for people with records. A 2016 study by the Alliance for a Just Society found that Indiana has 160 mandatory employment and licensing bans that prevent all individuals with criminal records from entering licensed, well-regulated career paths. Most of these blanket restrictions are mandatory lifetime bans and include licenses for: real estate brokers, engineers, plumbers, and soil scientists. HB 1245 was signed into law on March 21st by Governor Holcomb. HB 1245 reforms Indiana’s occupational licensing laws and brings them in line with suggestions from the National Employment Law Project (NELP). The new reforms will:

Remove blanket restrictions, requiring that any restrictions  be directly related to the crime. 
Place a five-year time limit on how long a person’s criminal record can be considered.
Create a petition process and appeals process that allows people to check for restrictions prior to applying for licenses or investing in training. The process allows a person to appeal a denial and directs that the committee include considerations such as evidence of rehabilitation or treatment, time passed since commission of the crime, and the seriousness of the crime.
Prohibit the use of vague terms such as “moral turpitude” or “good moral character” as licensing requirements. It also removes from consideration arrests not resulting in conviction.

Occupational licensing can lead to a 10 – 15% increase in income and can lift people out of low-wage jobs, improving the economic wellbeing of those who hold licenses. This highly-needed reform is a good first step to remove employment barriers, however Indiana can do more to ensure this population of the workforce is able to secure employment.

Unemployment rates are high for people with criminal records, with 60% of people who have been incarcerated still unemployed 1 year after release. Returning citizens work about half-time on average and earn an average of $10,714 annually (adjusted for inflation).  This is below the federal poverty guideline for an individual, which is $12,140  and far below the wage needed for self-sufficiency, which  for an individual adult in Indiana is $18,535.  

The use of background screening for employment has become widespread, and many times screening takes place in the beginning stages of the interview process, disqualifying people before they have even had a chance to present themselves. Men with records have a 60% chance of receiving a call back, whereas women with records have a 30% chance. Online applications often require a person to ‘check the box’ if they have EVER been convicted of a crime. These applicants can then be screened out by a computer algorithm without a review by a hiring manager.  

Last year, Governor Holcomb removed this ‘box’ from the application for state jobs. But Indiana can go further and take steps to ‘Ban the Box’ from all employment applications. This would help ensure people who have studied, obtained the proper training, and acquired the necessary skills and qualifications for a license, have the opportunity to receive an interview. A study investigating the effects of incarceration on employment found that the chances of a person with a record to receive a job offer increased six fold when the applicant was granted a face-to-face interview. Removing ‘the box’ gives people an opportunity to present their skills and qualifications directly to a potential employer and be considered on the merits of their ability to do the job.  Clearing barriers to employment will help to reduce recidivism and open pathways to self-sufficiency for this often-over-looked population of Indiana’s workforce. 

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