HARRISBURG — In Pennsylvania, prisoners can train for jobs as barbers and cosmetologists, but many of them struggle to get licenses to work in those fields after their release because of their criminal convictions.
Two bills — one in the Senate and one in the House — would prohibit the state from denying or revoking occupational licenses based solely on a person’s criminal history, as long as their crimes were not directly related to their desired profession.
This stems from a larger effort to update Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system to help people return to the world after prison. It comes on the heels of another effort in 2018, called the Clean Slate Act, which seals records of low-level crimes for people who stay out of legal trouble for 10 years.
Sen. John DiSanto (R., Perry), a primary sponsor of the Senate bill, said he hopes reducing barriers to licensing would help more people avoid returning to prison after release and also strengthen Pennsylvania’s workforce.
“Why should a theft or drug conviction early in life forever prohibit you from becoming a barber or massage therapist or a social worker?” he asked. “Blanket prohibitions without considering the circumstances don’t just do the applicant a disservice, but our entire commonwealth in need of a talented workforce.”
DiSanto said he hopes the Senate bill will pass by the end of June, when legislators typically wrap up the budget and address a flurry of other measures.
Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia), who introduced the House bill Wednesday, said he believes Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is outdated.
“We are supposed to rehabilitate inmates," Harris said. "We are supposed to have them come back [to society] better than when they went in. The truth is, many of them come out and experience barriers that many times send them back to prison.”
Pennsylvania requires state licensing for more than 30 occupations, including cosmetology, real estate, and nursing. As part of the state’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, inmates are given the opportunity to study in 22 different areas.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, more than 60 inmates pass licensing tests in cosmetology and barbering each year but are later turned down for licenses because of their criminal records.