Jaime Rojas is a model Florida citizen. He’s volunteered his time for causes ranging from preventing animal cruelty to speaking to teenagers in juvenile detention facilities about making good choices. He was even recognized by the Miami Beach City Commission after rescuing drowning swimmers at an unguarded beach.
For years, Jaime dreamed of turning that passion for protecting beachgoers into a career. And finally, he achieved that dream when a local municipality hired him as an ocean rescue lifeguard — so long as he could get licensed as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) by the Florida Department of Health. Jaime met the application requirements, so he wasn’t worried: He easily completed the 200-hour training course and passed the exam on his first attempt. But when Jaime applied to the department in 2020, it rejected him. Using a statute authorizing it to deny certification for any felony conviction, the department denied Jaime because of a single criminal conviction for drug distribution way back in 2004 — nearly 20 years earlier and well before Jaime turned his life around.
The department reversed course after the Institute for Justice — the nonprofit where I work— got involved. We spent dozens of hours putting together his second application, compiling nearly 100 pages of documents. But it shouldn’t take a small army of public-interest lawyers to help someone like Jaime obtain a license he’s well-qualified for. And Jaime’s initial denial is hardly unique. A hodgepodge of statutes and regulations give Florida’s occupational-licensing agencies wide-ranging authority to permanently bar people from all sorts of jobs throughout the state — from EMTs to pest controllers and everything in between — for unrelated crimes they committed years ago.
Denying people like Jaime the right to work is simply bad policy. Government red tape should not stymie a fresh start for people who, after serving their time for their mistakes, are looking to better their lives and communities through honest work. This session, the legislature can ensure exactly that by passing HB 1443 (sponsored by Reps. Katherine Waldron and David Smith) and SB 1124 (sponsored by Sen. Alexis Calatayud). The bills would:
* Ensure that people are denied a license to work for past convictions only when their crimes directly relate to the occupation;
* Place the burden on the government to prove that the person is not rehabilitated and that denying them is necessary to protect public safety;
* Allow people to apply to licensing agencies in advance — before investing in schooling and studying for exams — to determine whether their criminal history bars them from the occupation, rather than being blindsided after spending time and money on training.
In short, the reform would still allow licensing agencies to reject people who truly cannot be trusted to safely perform the duties of the job. On the other hand, it would get the government out of the way from economic opportunity for people who have turned their lives around.
The bill would also reduce crime. One of the strongest indicators for whether someone returning to society will commit crimes again is their ability to obtain stable, meaningful work. Indeed, researchers at Arizona State University found the states which make it tougher for ex-offenders to obtain occupational licenses saw increased recidivism rates compared to states that make it easier for ex-offenders to reintegrate economically. That is why states like Indiana, Iowa and Ohio have all enacted strong “fresh start” reforms. All three scored in the top five of the Institute for Justice’s report “Barred from Working,” a nationwide study of occupational licensing barriers for ex-offenders. Florida, by contrast, earned a D+, scoring in the bottom third of all states.
Florida takes great pride both in being a haven for upward mobility and in being smart on crime. This session, fresh start reform provides the legislature a strong opportunity to further both goals.
Michael Greenberg is an attorney for the Institute for Justice.