Dozens of job opportunities might open up for people with criminal records if a legislative push successfully removes barriers for professional licenses that are required for one out of every seven jobs in Georgia.

Georgia Justice Project’s criminal justice reform efforts are targeting the occupational licensing process that prospective employees must go through to work as an engineer, teacher, barber, nurse, truck driver and in many other fields. This week state lawmakers began a new legislative session in which they could take up a planned bill that includes details hashed out in meetings by a task force led by state Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, and Butler Democratic state Rep. Patty Bentley.

An occupational board grants licenses to hundreds of thousands of Georgians who meet standards based on education and prior experience, passing certification exams, and passing background checks.

Many people are unaware that they have a chance to successfully win an appeal of licensing board denial or don’t have the resources to go through that process.

Doug Ammar, the executive director of the GJP, said a criminal record shouldn’t always be held against someone who is otherwise qualified to perform a job. The mere fact that someone has an arrest on their record can sometimes be enough to disqualify them, he said.

“Because there’s not a lot of regulation or law on this, 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’s a pretty wide range of how that can impact you with not a lot of direction for the different licensing boards in the state.”

Strickland said the purpose of the planned legislation is to establish a more standardized licensing process, with some boards supervised by the secretary of state and others that are private.

The McDonough lawyer said there are some offenses that should prevent someone from working in certain jobs, such as someone who has abused elders not being able to work with vulnerable populations.

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

“We’re trying to make sure it’s a fair process and that we’re not creating these barriers that shouldn’t keep people from being productive members of society when it doesn’t have anything to do with the field they’re working in,” he said.

Ammar said Georgia’s legislation will aim to create clear guidelines regarding how long ago or how severe the offense was and whether it impacts a person’s ability to work in a particular industry, Ammar said.

The Atlanta nonprofit also seeks to expand the adoption of a pre-clearance process that’s already used by a few professional boards. It allows someone to determine ahead of time if anything prevents them from earning a license.

Strickland said preclearance better ensures that a person won’t waste time and resources only to find out that they’re ineligible later on.

A number of other states, including Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee, have passed laws supporting what the National Employment Law Project refers to as “fair chance licensing,” which reforms laws that impose unnecessary obstacles in fast-growing careers such as health care, education and transportation.

“As leaders at all levels of government work to ‘build back better’ and address the nation’s legacy of racial injustice and persistent racial inequality, removing barriers to employment for workers with records is needed more than ever,” the Center for American Progress said in a May 2021 report.

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Stanley Dunlap | Georgia Recorder

Stanley Dunlap writes for the Georgia Recorder.