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  1. Opinion

Make it easier for felons to earn occupational licenses | Column

People with past felony convictions should be included in occupational licensing reforms.

Floridians with past criminal convictions experience significant barriers when entering the workforce. For those pursuing an occupational license, these challenges are more pronounced.

And while lawmakers rightly sought to reduce licensing requirements for nearly 100 occupations this legislative session via House Bill 707, there is no language regarding a pathway for returning citizens to procure occupational licenses.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition organized an advocacy day last month, attended by more than 600 returning citizens — people with past felony convictions — urging Florida lawmakers to break down barriers to employment for people with past felony convictions.

Florida heavily regulates occupations compared to other states; on average, it requires more training and orders higher fees to be eligible for licensing exams.

Desmond Meade [ DENEKA PENISTON | Provided ]

Returning citizens have an even tougher time securing occupational licenses. Florida imposes a 15-year disqualifying period for felony offenses like grand theft and robbery, and a 7-year disqualifying period for other offenses. Of the more than 93,000 people released from prison in Florida between 2015 and 2018, at least 40 percent had offenses that disqualified them for 15 years.

Furthermore, Florida’s 23 professional licensing boards have the broad discretionary power to deny applications based on “good moral character.” These barriers impact the real lives of real people.

At the rights coalition’s advocacy day, one gentleman shared his story of working through those barriers. While he was incarcerated, he was trained as a barber. However, when he was released, he was told that he could not get a license. That kind of policy clearly makes no sense. We can do better — and Florida’s returning citizens deserve better. After all, study after study shows that the best way to stop individuals from re-offending is to have sensible policies in place that allow them to work and fully reintegrate into society. Erecting barriers to employment and job growth does the exact opposite.

Sadaf Knight [ Provided ]

Such barriers to employment include Florida’s requirement that all related fines, court costs and fees, and court-ordered restitution be paid before an occupational license can be issued. This can be an insurmountable barrier for formerly incarcerated Floridians, who often struggle to find quality work and are likely to have meager or no income. Nationally, returning citizens are paid at least 40 percent less than those who have not been incarcerated. Notably, from 2017-2018, out of the $235.6 million that was owed in circuit criminal court fines and fees in Florida, only 9 percent had been collected. The collection rates for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are 8.10% and 10.29%, respectively.

Increasing opportunities for formerly incarcerated Floridians to pursue occupational licenses would foster rehabilitation and permit those who have served their sentences to be a part of Florida’s entrepreneurial climate. It would also save taxpayer dollars, as the state would spend less money on re-incarceration.

We commend lawmakers for moving to reform Florida’s overly burdensome occupational licensing requirements through HB 707. But more work must be done to ensure that everyone, including returning citizens, have the opportunity to fully contribute to Florida’s economy.

Desmond Meade is executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and Sadaf Knight is CEO of the Florida Policy Institute.

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