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EDITORIAL: More work to do on criminal justice reform

Congress actually did something positive this month when, with President Donald Trump’s support, it passed the First Step Act, a modest criminal justice reform bill. The measure would keep violent and dangerous criminals behind bars while recognizing that far too many Americans, particularly in minority communities, face a lifetime of needlessly harsh consequences for stupid and often nonviolent mistakes.

One of those consequences is the difficulty past offenders often face in obtaining work. But the obstacles that exist go further than simply the stigma of a criminal record. Many ex-prisoners might find the doors shut thanks to overly burdensome occupational licensing requirements.

Consider the predicament of Amanda Spillane, a former Pennsylvania inmate whose past has blocked her from pursuing a career in cosmetology. While in prison on burglary and drug charges, Spillane attended beauty school for a brief time, which motivated her to continue her studies upon release. She completed a course to become a cosmetologist and pursued a license.

But as Andrew Wimer of the Institute for Justice noted recently in Forbes magazine, the government wouldn’t let her work. The Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology rejected her license application, citing her lack of “good moral character.” Spillane then faced a humiliating appeals process.

“A person with no personal knowledge of her life questioned whether her faith was real, demanded proof that Amanda gave regularly to charity, and asked why the people who had provided letters of recommendation had not traveled the two hours to the hearing to testify in person,” Mr. Wimer writes. “Amanda’s appeal was rejected, and she gave up on becoming an esthetician.”

The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that for years has opposed draconian occupational licensing laws, has filed suit on behalf of Spillane, who is just one of many former inmates who struggle to find work due to “often insurmountable barriers” created by federal, state and local laws. To put this problem in perspective, six decades ago just 1 in 20 jobs required a government permission slip. That ratio today is 1 in 5. While the barriers don’t just apply to former prisoners, they are increasingly more likely to be shut out, given that today nearly 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal history.

Making it more difficult for those who have paid their debt to society to reintegrate into the community is a recipe for recidivism. Occupational licensing reform should be a corollary of criminal justice reform. congressonal Democrats and Republicans put aside their differences to come together on the latter. They — along with state and local governments — should do the same on the former.

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