Utah’s licensing boards discriminate against ex-offenders

Picture this. A young man falls into poverty and, out of desperation, resorts to petty theft in order to help feed his family. He gets caught and is sentenced to a few months in prison as punishment for committing a Class B misdemeanor. While serving out his time, the young man reflects on his past mistake, vowing to never resort to such acts again, and dedicates himself to pursuing a better life.

Five years after being released, the young man has not committed another crime and has found something he is passionate about—landscape architecture. He sees landscape architecture as a means to finding a stable and fulfilling career that will remove him from the pattern of desperation that led to his original offense.

Unfortunately for him, Utah law requires a license to engage in the practice of landscape architecture, meaning he will have to adventure through Utah’s arduous occupational licensing application process. He gathers his documents and submits an application form, pays a fee, and studies for and passes the relevant examination.

After having dumped hundreds of hours and dollars into the process, he later finds out that his licensure application was denied. Why? A licensing board consisting of landscape architects (who benefit from gatekeeping to decrease competition) subjectively decided that he did not meet the requirement of having a “good moral character,” using his criminal record as “evidence,” despite the crime being completely unrelated to the practice of landscape architecture and occurring long in the past. Now, not only is the young man continuing to be indirectly punished for a mistake he has served time for, but he is also being denied his right to practice his desired occupation. This has the potential to banish him to a life of limited social and financial mobility and push him into tough situations where he may choose to recidivate in order to meet his family’s basic needs.

This hypothetical story is a reality for many ex-offenders seeking jobs. In fact, with hundreds of occupations requiring licensure and an estimated one in four Utahns having some sort of criminal record, occupational licensing actually prevents a vast swathe of the Utah population from working many jobs. These licensing obstacles are part of the reason why 46 percent of Utah’s inmates return to prison within three years. With limited economic opportunities, ex-offenders are forced back into circumstances where criminal activity seems like their only option.

Proponents of this practice argue that certain vital professions, like nurses and police officers, must be filled with qualified people with clean records in order to keep the people of Utah safe. There is some merit to this argument. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want an unstable murderer to be my state-licensed doctor either. However, what about the hundreds of other occupations that are licensed in Utah? To name a few, becoming an athletic trainer, a security alarm installer, and even a barber requires a professional license.

One incremental step that Utah can take to make the licensing process fairer for ex-offenders is to join eighteen other states and ban the use of vague “good moral character” or “moral turpitude” considerations. Currently, these clauses unnecessarily give licensing boards broad leeway to deny people, mainly those with any sort of criminal record, from obtaining professional licenses.

This is problematic as many ex-offenders may find themselves denied licenses for occupations that have nothing to do with the crimes they committed in the past. It also dissuades ex-offenders from pursuing licenses as it requires a lot of money and time to pass through the licensing process to the point of board consideration and decision. These licensing denials do not make Utahns any safer. Ironically, they accomplish the opposite, as the limiting of economic opportunities for ex-offenders only helps create desperate situations that foster the repeating of crimes.

Fortunately, Utah has already made good progress in this area, recognizing the benefits of making it easier for ex-offenders to find employment. Reforms in 2019 and 2020 repealed the use of some moral character requirements by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL).

Nonetheless, there is still much to improve on this front. The DOPL continues to allow its boards to block licenses based on whether someone has committed “crimes of moral turpitude”, a term that is not well defined. Furthermore, licenses issued by other departments such as those that concern the financial or private security sectors, as well as landscape architecture, are not covered under the reforms, meaning they still utilize “good moral character” and “moral turpitude” clauses in their assessment of license applications. Utah should wholly block all licensing boards from using either vague clause and, if occupational licensing is truly necessary, set defined and relevant standards for what a criminal record would have to look like for an application to be denied.

Jazper Lu is an intern at Libertas Institute, a public policy think tank in Lehi, Utah.