South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed a law to help reduce unnecessary employment barriers for people with criminal records.
Research on reducing recidivism—the rate at which people are rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated—shows that access to gainful employment is a key factor for reintegrating former criminal offenders into society. But some state policies, such as occupational licensing regulations, can create barriers to employment for people with criminal backgrounds.
An occupational license is a government-issued stamp of approval to enter into certain regulated fields of work. Today, more than one-in-five workers nationwide must hold a license to legally do their job. Licensing laws and rules in many states explicitly prohibit former offenders from obtaining licensure or include vague requirements to judge a candidate’s “moral character.” Too often, licensing boards have the authority to deny an application based solely on a prior arrest–even if the applicant was never convicted and the alleged offense is unrelated to the occupation. Several studies have linked occupational licensing policies to increased criminal recidivism.
House Bill 3605 is a major step toward reducing barriers to licensure for South Carolinians with criminal records. Prior to H.B. 3605, South Carolina statute prohibited licensing boards from denying applications on the sole basis of a criminal conviction unless the conviction was “directly related” to the occupation. However, the statute’s wording was vague and allowed boards to consider conviction records in determining whether applicants were “unfit or unsuited to engage in the profession or occupation.”
South Carolina’s new law clarifies that applicants may not be denied licensure based solely on a prior criminal conviction unless the conviction is directly related to the duties, responsibilities, or fitness of the occupation or profession for which the applicant is seeking a license. Before applications may be denied based on a criminal conviction, H.B. 3605 ensures that applicants will have an opportunity to appear at a hearing before the board. If the board decides to deny an applicant based on a prior conviction, the applicant will be provided with a written explanation and will have the right to appeal their denial.
H.B. 3605 further prohibits licensing boards from justifying denials by using vague, subjective terms like “moral character.” Boards are also explicitly prohibited from considering charges that have been dismissed, not pursued, or adjudicated with a finding of not guilty. The new law provides additional protections against revocation or suspension to people who currently hold a license.
South Carolina Rep. Melissa Oremus (R-Aiken County), one of the bill’s sponsors, commented on its importance: “It’s a win for the state. ‘Pro-life’ means second chances, and this gives many just that.”
Reason Foundation’s criminal justice team contributed to these reforms through technical assistance and public testimony. “I’m so grateful for Rep. Oremus and her willingness to not only meet with me about this issue but to also help lead the charge in getting this legislation passed and signed by the governor,” said Reason Foundation government affairs associate David Morgan.
While there is still room to improve South Carolina’s licensing laws, H.B. 3605 is a major step in the right direction. We applaud the South Carolina state legislature and Gov. McMaster for their efforts to reduce barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records.