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PA Senate Unanimously Passes Proposal To Help Ex-Offenders Get Professional Licenses

Mary Altaffer
In Pennsylvania, one in five professions, including being a barber, require practitioners to be licensed, according to state Sen. John DiSanto.

Pennsylvanians who want to get jobs as nurses, funeral directors or hairdressers must first be licensed. For some, that requirement makes it impossible to enter certain professions. Under current law, licensing boards can deny certification automatically to those who have been convicted of a felony, or of a misdemeanor relevant to the occupation.

A bill that passed the state Senate unanimously Thursday, however, could change that policy. It would require boards to review each application individually, and give applicants more chances to make their case.

Bill co-sponsor John DiSanto (R-Dauphin and Perry counties) said in a statement Thursday that the proposal promises to give “rehabilitated citizens … a fair chance to reintegrate into our communities.”

“More than one in five jobs,” the Republican added, “require a government issued license and, too often, qualified applicants are denied the right to work because of an old or irrelevant criminal record.”

The legislation would stop licensing boards from withholding certifications for convictions that are not directly related to a specific line of work.

Jenna Moll, deputy director of the Justice Action Network, said such an approach makes sense.

“We don’t really care if somebody is applying to have a barber’s license [who was] convicted of very minor drug possession 30 years ago,” Moll said. “In contrast, however, we wouldn’t want somebody that was convicted of fraud to get a job as a bank teller or kind of anything in the financial services industry.”

The Senate bill requires state boards and commissions to publish lists of offenses they determine to be directly related to the work of specific occupations. It also allows individuals to seek a preliminary decision from the board before participating in a job-training program, if they are unsure of whether their past offenses would disqualify them from obtaining a particular license.

Pennsylvania has 29 professional licensing boards and commissions, and about 250 types of license.

“So if you think about … how many folks have had contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their life,” Moll of the Justice Action Network said, “we’re definitely talking about thousands of people that will have a better shot at a job after this bill passes.”

In his statement Thursday, DiSanto predicted the legislation would bring about broad economic benefits.

“By helping more individuals access state-issued job licenses in their chosen professions we will reduce recidivism and promote economic opportunity at a time our commonwealth is in need of a skilled workforce,” the lawmaker wrote.

State Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks County) joined DiSanto in introducing the legislation.

A similar measure, also introduced by a bipartisan team of lawmakers, is pending in the state House.

A spokesperson for Governor Tom Wolf, J.J. Abbott, said the governor strongly supports the bill and that his administration helped to develop it.