DOPL responds to op-ed on licensing ex-offenders

Last week Utah Policy published an opinion piece claiming that Utah’s professional licensing boards discriminate against ex-offenders. This claim is baseless and ignores critical facts that show state lawmakers and the Division of Professional Licensing (DOPL) have made several significant efforts over the past several years to reduce barriers and open opportunities for Utahns with criminal histories.

In the 2019 general legislative session lawmakers passed HB 90, which provided an application process whereby ex-offenders can determine if their criminal history would disqualify them from licensure if all other requirements are met. This step helps ex-offenders definitively know whether they’re eligible for licensure before they spend the time and money fulfilling license requirements and going through the application process. DOPL has reviewed 24 criminal history determination applications so far this year. In addition to receiving an answer as to whether or not a person’s criminal history would disqualify them from licensure, applicants receive resources and additional information on steps they could take to potentially qualify for licensure in the future. 

HB 90 also required that DOPL only consider criminal history that “bears a substantial relationship to the licensee’s or applicant’s ability to safely or competently practice the occupation or profession.” The Utah Department of Commerce asked the sponsor of this legislation to replace “reasonable” with “substantial” to ensure the careful use of criminal history in licensing decisions. 

Additionally, in the 2020 legislative session lawmakers passed SB 201. This bill specifically requires DOPL to make individual considerations based on several factors before they’re able to deny an applicant based on their criminal history. Among these factors are the time that has elapsed since conviction, the applicant’s participation in any rehabilitation programs, and testimonials provided by the applicant. This requirement ensures applications for ex-offenders are considered case by case.

The best example of how DOPL is addressing this issue is the development of extensive criminal history guidelines for all licensed professions. These criminal history matrices are individually tailored to the profession and offer exact guidance for which charges have an impact on the approval of a license. This guidance is based on how long it has been since the individual was charged.  Matrices are available on the DOPL website under the individual profession application pages.

The opinion piece presented the hypothetical situation of an individual who had an unfortunate run-in with the law and served time for a class B misdemeanor and then applied for a landscape architect license. According to the criminal history matrix for the landscape architecture license, depending on the actual charge, that individual would still be issued a license in the majority of situations. More specifically, a person convicted of retail theft would be issued a license whether the conviction happened a month prior or 10 years prior without any additional review. A conviction of theft or theft of services that happened 5 years prior to applying for a landscape architect license would also be issued without any additional review.

More serious charges require a supervisor review and potentially an interview to determine whether the criminal charges would have an impact on the day to day work of that profession. 

DOPL’s role is always to look out for public safety, however, the culture surrounding the issuance of licensure has fundamentally changed over the past several years in this area. DOPL staff typically deny a license only when the criminal history is extensive, of significant magnitude, and substantially related to the practice of the profession. 

In the article, there is an acknowledgement of the fact that lawmakers passed bills to eliminate some moral character requirements, but failed to acknowledge more recent efforts in 2020 and 2022 that deleted the exact phrases of “good moral behavior” and “moral turpitude” for the majority of professional licensure requirements. 

There may be incidences where those phrases still exist for specific professions. We are committed to working with lawmakers and trade associations to update licensing requirements to be relevant to today’s standards. In fact, that’s one thing the Office of Professional Licensure Review will be specifically looking at cleaning up. 

Zach Whitney is the communications director for the Utah Department of Commerce, the state agency where DOPL is located.