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Licensing reforms help ex-offenders rejoin the workforce in Illinois

Nursing was by far the most popular field, with the state’s various nursing licenses issued to over 450 new licensees who had criminal records. With many hospitals understaffed and overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, letting hundreds of new nurses practice by loosening licensing restrictions was a particularly prescient reform.  

Nor was this boost limited to nursing. Dozens of different credentials in the health and medical fields were issued to hundreds of ex-offenders, including physicians, pharmacists, and professional counselors. All told, medical and health-related occupations accounted for nearly half of all licenses granted to ex-offenders in Illinois.

Other popular fields include private security and real estate, with each sector reporting nearly 300 new permits, licenses, and other credentials issued to people with criminal records. Across all licenses, two-thirds of ex-offenders who applied for a license were granted one. Encouragingly, state licensing boards rejected just 1 percent of applicants “in part or whole because of a criminal conviction.” (The rest either had their applications still pending at the time of reporting, or were otherwise unspecified.)

Although roughly one in three Americans has a criminal record of some kind, for many newly issued licenses in Illinois, less than 2 percent were granted to ex-offenders. (Barbers were one notable exception, with ex-offenders accounting for 6 percent of all new licenses granted in the state.) This wide discrepancy seems to suggest that many people with criminal records are nonetheless still deterred from seeking licenses. Stigma and unawareness of the new reforms are certainly factors. 

But the state’s burdensome regulatory regime shouldn’t be overlooked either. After all, many licenses can be incredibly onerous to obtain. According to a separate study from the Institute for Justice, the average license for low- and middle-income occupations in Illinois requires finishing 249 days of education and experience and paying $244 in fees—a considerable investment. 

One possible solution is enacting a petition process, already on the books in 17 states, including Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Before they begin any required coursework or training, applicants can petition licensing boards to see if their criminal record would be disqualifying. This would provide some much-needed regulatory certainty and continue to expand economic opportunity. 

Nick Sibilla is a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice and the author of “Barred from Working.”

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