Originally Published: The Oklahoman
Written by: Tim Head, David Safavian, and Jason Pye

Pope St. John Paul II stated in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens” that “work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.”

One of the social questions facing the people of Oklahoma is how to address the revolving door of Oklahoma prisons making Oklahoma communities less safe. The answer to this question lies as Pope St. John Paul II believed — in the inherent dignity of work.

Oklahoma’s Legislature is considering legislation to address the issue by reducing the chances that ex-offenders return to criminal activity but instead re-enter society as productive citizens caring for their families and paying taxes. House Bill 1373 and HB 2134 would eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment that trap so many former inmates in a cycle of incarceration. As ex-inmates look to turn their lives around, many are looking for work as massage therapists, barbers, or dozens of other professions that require occupational licenses.

A study from the Oklahoma Occupational Licensing Taskforce found that in the 1950s, only one in 50 professions required an occupational license. Today, that number is nearly one in three. According to the Institute of Justice, Oklahoma has the 18th most burdensome licensing laws in the country and requires a license for over 40 lower-income occupations. On average, obtaining one of these licenses requires $234 in fees, two exams and 399 days of education.

Occupational licensing laws are a significant impediment to all Oklahomans looking for employment, but for individuals with a criminal record, meeting these requirements is almost impossible.

Placing barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records increases their chances of returning to prison. A recent Arizona State University study estimated that states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw increased recidivism rates over 9 percent, while states with the lowest professional licensing burdens saw a 4.2 percent decline in recidivism.

Oklahoma’s occupational licensing laws bar many individuals with a criminal record from gaining employment to support themselves and their families. While committing certain crimes should keep individuals from obtaining certain licenses, there’s no public safety reason to prevent a nonviolent, ex-offender from becoming a barber.

When individuals leave correctional facilities and attempt to re-enter society, finding employment is one of the critical factors in preventing recidivism. Individuals are often denied a license based on their criminal history — regardless of when the crime was committed or if the offense was related to the occupation for which they seek licensure.

HB 1373 would require licensing agencies to list specific criminal records that disqualify applicants, require that the offenses are directly related to the occupation, and removes the “good moral character” and “moral turpitude” provisions of each licensing statute. HB 2134 would stop licensing agencies from automatically disqualifying candidates because of a prior conviction, and unless the conviction is related to the occupation.

Oklahoma’s occupational licensing laws have grown beyond what is necessary to ensure the safety of our communities. Excessive regulatory and licensing requirements threaten public safety by imposing unnecessary hurdles for ex-offenders seeking employment and often drives them back to a life of crime.

Every case of recidivism is another crime, another victim and another expensive prison bed. By enacting HB 2372 and HB 2134, we can ensure that ex-offenders have meaningful opportunities for work to reduce recidivism and make Oklahoma communities safer.

Head is executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Safavian is deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Pye is vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.