The High Stakes of Licensing Bans for People With a Criminal Record
Joy Block-Wright never had trouble finding a job before she went to prison. Her strong work ethic, administrative skills, and outgoing personality proved essential wherever she worked. But once she had a criminal record, her dream of being an entrepreneur was cut short.
“I felt like this [criminal record] was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Joy says.
For a staggering number of people in the U.S., finding work doesn’t just involve impressing a potential boss or client. It also requires convincing the government. Today, people with a criminal record face more than 16,000 legal barriers to obtaining an occupational license.
Licenses help ensure public safety and wellbeing, as well as support career development and professionalism in various fields. Often, occupational licensing laws have no bearing on public safety. Instead, they only hinder people like Joy from gainful employment—a necessary part of every reentry journey.
STARTING FROM SQUARE ONE
For so long, throughout her teen years and young adulthood, Joy struggled with substance abuse. Drugs were one way to cope with domestic abuse she endured, and she landed behind bars several times. She reached her rock bottom when she was convicted for credit card fraud and sentenced to federal prison.
In 2005, Joy walked into Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, to begin her sentence. She says she took time to process her choices and to “get right” with God there. She thought of her young children, ages 3 and 4, who were now being raised by their grandmother in another state. She thought of the hopes she had for their future as well as her own.
“It was my ‘aha’ moment, as they call it,” says Joy. “In prison, you have plenty of time to think, to read, to praise … I was ready to make that change.”
Joy left prison in 2006 with a renewed purpose and a desire to live right. But reentry felt like starting from square one: She had to reinstate her driver’s license, rebuild her credit score, and support her young children. She moved into a transition home in Oklahoma City where her son and daughter could live with her. While there, she worked for a mortgage broker and attended church. Soon she saved up enough money to move into her own place.
While Joy worked to get back on her feet, she didn’t just feel different—she lived that way. People noticed her work ethic, grateful attitude, and gift for connecting with others. But, whenever possible, she hid the fact that she had a criminal history. She knew the weight of the stigma behind it.
A MISSING KEY
Joy began to feel a burden lifted after paying many court fines and fees. Her future started looking brighter. Hoping to go into business for herself, she enrolled in night school in 2012 and began studying for her real estate license.
But the next year, she was barred from sitting for the exam because she had a felony.
Joy’s denial from admission to the licensing exam was a form letter with no provisions for her transformation, no venue for others to vouch for her character, no opportunity to appeal and try again.
Public safety risk is a legitimate priority, and some prohibitions make sense when there is a clear connection between a person’s crime and the occupation. For instance, it may be prudent to limit a person with a drug offense from receiving a pharmacist license. A person who committed a crime against a child should not work in a daycare.
But some restrictions exclude from jobs people with any crime on their record, regardless of the crime’s nature or how long ago it occurred. For example, in some states, a person with any criminal conviction would be banned from licenses in architecture or interior design.
In Joy’s case, one significant key to success was missing: the chance to show evidence of her transformation.
THE DIGNITY OF WORK
In the years following her incarceration, Joy had purchased a home, attended church faithfully, and supported her family. She worked as an administrative assistant at Beham engineer.
In 2019, Joy founded Walter’s Way, a reentry organization in Tulsa, Oklahoma, helping people regain their lives after prison with housing, furniture, job support, and other necessities. Channeling her lived experience as a returned citizen, Joy became a Prison Fellowship® Justice Ambassador to advocate for a more restorative justice system. She encourages policymakers, churches, and businesses to promote second chances, knowing firsthand the hurdles that people face coming home from prison.
Thanks to Joy’s direct advocacy and sharing of her story with lawmakers, more Oklahomans with a criminal record will have a fairer shot at an occupational license. In 2022, Oklahoma lawmakers passed SB1691, which requires licensing boards to conduct an individualized assessment of an applicant’s criminal history and progress in rehabilitation when considering their ability to safely work in a specific licensed profession.
Oklahoma now has some of the nation’s fairest licensing practices for applicants with a criminal record—positioning more men and women who have served their time to experience the dignity of work.
MAKING SPACE TO SUCCEED
Gainful employment is one of the most significant known predictors of the likelihood that a person will return to criminal behavior. Right now in the U.S., 1 in 4 people need a license for their work—from electricians to cosmetologists to nurses—but, because of a criminal record, many are banned from the opportunity to apply themselves and make an honest living.
Self-employment can be especially appealing to people with a criminal record who struggle to overcome prejudice from employers. But many of these independent jobs require a license. Blanket bans limit opportunities for people who could thrive at “being their own boss” to support themselves and their families.
When we only look at someone’s history, we fail to see the whole person: not only their past choices, but their present life, motivations, and potential. Broad-brush licensing bans effectively close the door on conversations that are necessary to creating second chance opportunities.
People with a criminal record can thrive when we remove unnecessary obstacles to their success. They have proven to be dedicated, hardworking employees with the drive to make good on a second chance. Research even shows they could contribute some $87 billion more to the economy if restrictions like licensing bans were lifted.
Joy believes the way forward begins with making space for people to succeed.
In 2020, Joy applied for a formal pardon from the governor and received it. She celebrates how far she has come, though she recognizes the barriers that still exist for her and so many others.
“People need to have an opportunity to move forward in life,” says Joy. “And a second chance is that opportunity that you’re giving someone. It’s going to be your neighbor, my neighbor, your friend, my cousin, my brother. It could be anybody.”
WATCH: OCCUPATIONAL LICENSING | THE JUSTICE CHRONICLES
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