Fair Chance Licensing Reform: Opening Pathways for People with Records to Join Licensed Professions


Two trends, decades in the making, are colliding.

The first trend, stemming from “tough on crime” policies and mass incarceration, is that more Americans have an arrest or conviction record than ever before. The second trend is the dramatic expansion of occupational licensing, which requires people to obtain permission from a government agency—and, commonly, pass a background check—before they can work.

The result? More than 70 million people with a record in the United States either face significant barriers when seeking a license to work, which is now required for one in four jobs, including many good-paying jobs that are in high demand in healthcare and other industries, or—even worse—they are automatically disqualified, sometimes for life.

A license to work is now required for one in four jobs.

Laws that function in this way to permanently stigmatize and keep opportunity out of reach for so many people serve none of us well.

This debate isn’t merely philosophical. The best evidence, highlighted throughout this toolkit, makes a few things clear: policies that make it easier for people with records to work strengthen the economy, improve public safety, help employers find good workers, and advance racial and social justice. Fair chance licensing reforms are critical to realizing these benefits, and policy makers of all political stripes have spoken out in favor of these commonsense policies.

But it’s also important to keep sight of a more basic point: these issues are fundamentally about people. When a person with a record is not permitted—as a matter of public policy—to reach their full potential, real and lasting consequences follow for individuals, families, and entire communities. All of us.

We all have a stake in this work, and it’s time to act. This toolkit is intended to provide lawmakers and advocates in states across the country with the resources necessary to set about the work of fair chance licensing reform.

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About the Authors

Beth Avery

Areas of expertise:
  • Criminal Records & Employment

Maurice Emsellem

Fair Chance Program Director, National Employment Law Project

Han Lu

Areas of expertise:
  • Criminal Records & Employment,
  • Workplace Equity

Related Resources

All resources