Op-Ed

How California’s job standards worsen recidivism

California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country: Fifty-eight percent of individuals released from prison end up back in the system within three years, compared with the national average of 40% when excluding California, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although there are a host of reasons for this unfortunate distinction, one is that the Golden State government makes it unusually difficult for its struggling residents to find jobs.

All states have occupational licensing laws that require individuals to complete various steps before they can enter certain professions. Mandates may include hours, months or even years of training, expensive fees and tests. Over the past several decades, occupational licensing laws in California – and across the country – have grown dramatically. In the 1950s about 5% of occupations were licensed nationwide. Today, roughly 25% of occupations require a state license, many for poor and middle-income professions, according to a recent White House study.

The Golden State’s occupational licensing laws are stricter than most. In fact, the Institute for Justice ranks California as “the second-most broadly and onerously licensed state.” California is one of seven states to license tree trimmers, one of 10 to license landscape workers, one of two to license still machine setters, one of two to license funeral attendants, and one of nine to license farm labor contractors.

All told, 62 of 102 low- and moderate-income occupations are licensed, more than any state except Louisiana and Arizona.

On average, Californians seeking an occupational license will pay $300 in fees, lose 549 days to training requirements and have to take an exam. That’s just the average. Some of the burdens are far more cumbersome. For instance, a tree trimmer must complete 1,460 hours of training, pass two exams, and pay $851 in fees; a mobile home installer must also complete 1,460 hours, compared to the national average of 245; and a pharmacy technician must complete 730 hours in addition to meeting educational requirements, a bar that’s only as high in three other states.

Unlike some states, which have enacted outright bans on licensing individuals with a record, California does have some protections for ex-convicts. The state allows agencies to deny individuals a license based only on “substantially related” convictions. In most cases, agencies cannot deny an individual “solely on the basis” of his or her past convictions.

Whatever the state’s intentions, however, its onerous licensing laws have the effect of keeping ex-convicts out of licensed occupations. After years behind bars, they don’t have the savings needed to enroll in training programs, much less pay licensing fees. To become a licensed security alarm installer, for instance, an individual must complete 933 hours of training, which can easily cost upwards of $1,200. Many of the training programs, moreover, require a high school degree, which two in five inmates nationwide never obtained, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice study.

To stay out of prison, ex-convicts need a way to provide for themselves legally. With so many barriers to employment, it’s no wonder that states with abundant licensing laws experience a higher recidivism rate.

Analysis of data from the Institute for Justice, the Pew Center on the States and the National Employment Law Project reveals that states with the most burdensome licensing laws saw an average 9% increase in recidivism from 1997 to 2007. On the other hand, the states that had the lowest licensing burdens and no provisions excluding ex-convicts saw an average decline in recidivism by nearly 2.5%. 

In other words, the greater the licensing barriers, the higher the chances that ex-prisoners will be shut out of the job market and return to crime.

In theory, states license occupations for public health and safety reasons. But the proliferation of such laws in recent decades doesn’t appear to be motivated – or justified – by such causes. After examining empirical research, the White House study concluded, “licensed professions’ degree of political influence is one of the most important factors in determining whether states regulate an occupation.”

What’s more, of the 12 major studies the White House analyzed, only two found that more stringent licensing laws were actually associated with improved service.

Even when safety may be a reasonable concern, the requirements often don’t match the occupation: For instance, while a California landscaper must complete 1,460 days of training, an emergency medical technician is only required to train for 28 days. If safety was the priority, shouldn’t it be the reverse?

California is regulating individuals out of good-paying jobs, and it hurts those just getting on their feet.

State lawmakers dedicated to criminal justice reform will make lasting changes if they break the cycle of recidivism. They could start by removing the government barriers to employment. That’s a sure way to improve – rather than hold back – the lives of those seeking a second chance.

Stephen Slivinski is a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.

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This article originally attributed a 2011 study on recidivism to Pew Research. The study was actually conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project.
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