Georgia lawmakers plan to make it easier for workers with criminal records to get professional licenses

Dozens of job opportunities could open up for people with criminal records if a legislative push successfully eliminates professional licensing hurdles required for one in seven jobs in Georgia.

The Georgia Justice Project's criminal justice reform efforts target the professional licensing process that prospective employees must complete to work as engineers, teachers, hairdressers, nurses, truck drivers, and many other fields. This week, state lawmakers began a new legislative session in which they could pass a proposed bill that includes details discussed in meetings of a task force led by Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, and Butler Democratic Reps Patty Bentley were drawn up.

A professional association awards licenses to hundreds of thousands of Georgians who meet standards based on their education and prior experience, passing certification exams and passing background checks.

Many people do not realize that they have a chance of successfully winning an appeal of the agency's denial of approval, or they do not have the resources to go through this process.

Doug Ammar, executive director of the GJP, said a criminal record should not always be imposed on someone who is otherwise qualified to do a job. The mere fact that someone was arrested can sometimes be enough to disqualify them, he said.

“Because there aren’t a lot of regulations or laws around this, the boards can look at something that was a non-conviction. Something can be expunged or pardoned and they can still use it to stop you from getting a license,” Ammar said. “There is a pretty wide range of potential impacts without much guidance being provided to the various licensing boards in the state.”

Strickland said the purpose of the proposed legislation is to establish a standardized licensing process, with some boards overseen by the Secretary of State and others private.

The McDonough attorney said there are some crimes that should bar someone from working in certain jobs, such as someone who has abused the elderly not being able to work with vulnerable populations.

Ultimately, Strickland said, the goal is to help people who have made mistakes remain productive members of society.

“We're trying to make sure that it's a fair process and that we don't create barriers that shouldn't stop people from being productive members of society if that has nothing to do with the field in which they work.” he said.

Ammar said Georgia's legislation will aim to create clear guidelines about how long ago the offense occurred or how serious it was and whether it affects a person's ability to work in a particular industry, Ammar said.

The Atlanta nonprofit also wants to expand adoption of a preclearance process already used by some professional boards. This allows someone to determine in advance if there is anything preventing them from obtaining a license.

Strickland said pre-approval better ensures a person doesn't waste time and resources only to later find out they're ineligible.

A number of other states, including Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee, have passed laws supporting what the National Employment Law Project calls “fair chance licensing.” It involves reforming laws that create unnecessary barriers to fast-growing professions such as healthcare, education and transportation.

“As leaders at all levels of government work to build back better and address the legacy of racial injustice and persistent racial inequality in the nation, eliminating barriers to employment for workers with criminal records is more important than ever,” the Center for American Progress said in a Report from May 2021.