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House Judiciary hears testimony on occupational licenses for the formerly incarcerated



The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Tuesday on H5683, a bill that would prevent justice-involved Rhode Islanders from being denied an occupational license based solely or partially on a non-related criminal conviction. The bill, introduced by Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence), develops a standardized process by which only convictions directly related to the duties of the licensed occupation can be considered in the application for a professional license; provide guidance on how those records should be considered when an application is being reviewed; and create a more transparent decision-making and notification process.

The present system of denying occupational licenses to people with felony convictions is a form of continuing punishment for people who have served their time in the prison system. Creating a path towards occupational licensing for the formerly incarcerated is important for the goals of rehabilitation and reform.

For more on this, see: The Fair Chance Licensing Coalition says everyone deserves meaningful employment

Here’s the video of the testimony on the bill:

“It should strike us, as lawmakers, as counterproductive to Rhode Island’s stated commitment to re-entry that people are being denied a license, for skills they learned in prison, once they have come home,” said Representative Slater, introducing his bill.

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Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) and Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown) discuss the process of expungement, tangentially related to licensing in that this would be a means towards the same end of allowing the formerly incarcerated a chance at legally using their skills in the job market, but does little for people with felony convictions or people on parole.

“What we have in Rhode Island… are lots and lots of laws that disqualify qualified individuals from getting occupational licenses based solely on an irrelevant and perhaps ancient criminal record,” said Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU. This bill, says Brown, ensures that people can be considered for licenses “based on their qualifications, based on their merits, and not simply based on their criminal record…”

“At DARE, not only do we believe that breaking down barriers is just, it will also, as everyone in this room knows, will contribute to safe streets and economically secure families,” said Joshua Stroman, an organizer with DARE‘s Behind the Walls Committee. DARE is the group behind the Fair Chance Licensing Coalition, which is working to pass this legislation.

“Our organization provides case management for 90 incarcerated sex workers in the northeast,” said Bella Robinson, executive director of COYOTE RI. “Many of them cannot get jobs when they are out of the system. It forces them to stay in the sex industry because they have limited options…”

“In Rhode Island law there are approximately 150 licensing related statutes, and many more regulations that have some of these conviction related barriers built into them.” In Rhode Island we have “potentially tens of thousands of people who could be denied to a licensed occupation.”

“In 1989 I was convicted for less than two grams of cocaine and was given probation,” said Mark Gonzalez Sr. “I wanted to go into the military and I wanted to go into law enforcement, but that messed me up… I’m sure that some of you guys have kids who are now adults, and they might have made mistakes in their life, and you don’t still hold them accountable for those mistakes that they made.”

“I always say that it’s one thing to be locked up in prison, it’s entirely another thing to be locked out of society,” said James Monteiro, a community activist.

“It’s been alarmingly difficult for me to find a career, provide for my daughter and spend time with her as well,” said Sara Reyes, a member of DARE. “Prison should be about rehabilitation and finding a way to reintegrate into society. If the programs in prison don’t lead to employment it’s a false hope and a waste of taxpayers money.”

Several occupations that those in prison can get training in are unavailable to them after they are released due to barriers to licensing.

“The commission’s interest in the bill stems from the well documented racial disparity in the criminal justice system,” said John Bogue of the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights. “Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately arrested and convicted, obviously bars to employment for those with convictions on their record disproportionately affects these groups.”

“I was incarcerated from 2007 and 2013,” said Dawn Simas, president of the Formerly Incarcerated Persons Union. “I am not eligible to have my record expunged until 2032. I will be about 54 years old at that time.”

“I am aconvicted felon with maybe 22 years plus in the prison system due to my own fault. I don’t blame anybody for that I was a drug addict. I now have six years and nine months clean I was a licensed plumber before I got a felony conviction which in fact took my plumbing license away from me. I found my release six and half years ago I decided I was going to try a new road which I did. I applied again for a plumbing license. I was denied due to the fact that I was a convicted felon.”

Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) with some words of praise for those who testified.

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.