Pa. House joins Senate in overwhelmingly passing bill to help ex-convicts get professional licenses

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

To hold jobs like accountant, nurse or funeral director, Pennsylvanians must first obtain a license. Licensing boards today can automatically deny certification to those with criminal records. But last week the state House voted 193 to 4 to change that policy, in a bill similar to one the Senate passed in November.

Both proposals require boards to review each case individually and gauge factors like whether a person poses safety risks, or whether a past offense is relevant to the profession.

“I probably don’t want a person with an embezzlement charge being a [certified professional accountant],”  said Democratic bill sponsor Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia. “But as long as you can keep my hair from thinning, I don’t care … if you sold drugs and you want to be a barber.”

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

Harris sponsored the House bill with Cumberland County Republican Sheryl Delozier. Unlike the Senate version, it allows boards to award licenses – on a restricted basis – to those who took job training behind bars. Harris said those with restricted licenses can get full certification after one or two years without additional infractions.

“What sense does it make for us as a commonwealth to train somebody inside a prison for a job that they won’t get licensed to do when they get outside of the prison?” Harris asked.

The restricted license, Harris said, “provides the board leeway to not just give a blanket denial, but give a person an opportunity to continue to show … they are changing and that they have reformed their life, and then basically give them a way back into being able to secure their own financial freedom and their own financial futures.”

“Ultimately, the state is going to be the [beneficiary] of more job opportunities and increased income and economic prosperity for all Pennsylvanians, including those with criminal records,” said Jenna Moll, deputy director of the Justice Action Network.

Moll’s organization has lobbied for licensing reforms in Pennsylvania and other states, including Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. According to Moll, it plans to advocate for similar policies in New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington starting next year.

The House and Senate will combine their bills and take another round of votes on the bill that emerges. Governor Tom Wolf’s office has said Wolf supports the legislation.

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