The Fresh Start Act: A Second Chance for Ohioans with a record
By Jack McGowan
For the estimated one in three Americans with a criminal record, it can be tough to find jobs that offer fair wages and a career pathway. For many, one mark on their criminal record can limit their options to low-wage jobs with little or no job security or upward mobility – even if they were never convicted.
Ohio policymakers have erected 850 laws and administrative barriers that curtail the employment options of Ohioans who have already served their time. Some do not even require a conviction: licensing entities must pull licenses of parents who fall behind on child support payments if the enforcement agency sends notice. Others are legally ambiguous, citing “moral turpitude” and “moral character requirements.”
House Bill 263, known as the Fresh Start Act, would provide new pathways to work by lifting licensing restrictions for Ohioans with a record. It would eliminate arbitrary exclusions and require licensing bodies to provide a clear justification for excluding applicants, showing that the conviction limits the person’s ability to safely perform the job. Licensing bodies could no longer have blanket restrictions triggered by any type of conviction. When assessing candidates with a record, managers would have to consider other factors, including the time passed since the crime occurred.
Legal barriers to work concentrate in jobs that require a license, and in the public sector – though they likely set a restrictive tone that other employers follow. According to testimony by bill sponsor Representative Koehler, nearly 1 in 5 Ohioans need a license to work in their field. These include referees, dietitians, lead inspectors and physicians' assistants. Many of these jobs require trainings or testing, which may be expensive. A person with a previous conviction may go through all the necessary steps to acquire a license, only to have their final application denied based solely on their past record, regardless of time passed or the relevance of their past to their current occupation.
Currently, hiring managers have wide discretion in most cases, but that can be a double-edged sword. Discretion can help candidates when a manager takes the time to review their full qualifications; but lack of guidance for managers means that hiring decisions could be made arbitrarily, and a conviction could even be used as cover for discrimination. Research shows that white candidates with a felony get called back more often than black candidates with no criminal record. Some employers use higher conviction rates among people of color as a license to discriminate.
HB 263 would help people with past convictions rebuild their lives. The bill would standardize the licensing process for licensed professions; requiring the various state licensing authorities to specify which offenses would disqualify a candidate to each specific license. After five years, if a person’s crime wasn’t sexual or violent, they could not be excluded for it. In addition, licensing boards would be required to tell applicants why their application was denied, and if applicable, the amount of time they must wait to re-apply.
In some cases, employers will need this bill as much as job applicants. Many thousands of positions within Ohio’s health care industry are projected to open in the near future, and unless this reform passes, critical jobs could go unfilled, leaving patients and aging Ohioans without enough caretakers. Communities around the country are making similar reforms. Maryland’s largest employer, Johns Hopkins Medical Center, has adopted a similar policy and hired 115 people with a conviction in their backgrounds at various Baltimore City locations. Illinois enacted licensing reform that expands access to over 100 previously restricted job types for residents who have gone five years without a criminal offense and who have been out of prison for at least three years if they served time.
In its current form, HB 263 would only affect those seeking initial licenses who have a prior criminal record but have not violated terms of parole, or re-offended in the five years following their latest incident. The bill does not apply to anyone convicted of a sexual or violent crime.
The Fresh Start Act would clear barriers to work for thousands of Ohioans. Some language changes could ensure that it benefits more. The bill should be modified to cover not just initial licenses, but ongoing eligibility for existing licenses and renewals. HB 263 should also direct licensing bodies to provide guidance to managers on how to evaluate candidates in consideration of time passed and restitution or rehabilitation activities.
House Bill 263 would be life changing for the many Ohioans who may have slipped up in their past but have worked hard since then to get on track. These Ohioans deserve a second chance.