The Grades Are In: How Well is Your State Licensing People with Criminal Records?

According to a study produced by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the majority of states are creating barriers for people with criminal records to access occupational licensure opportunities. NELP estimates between 70 and 100 million American (nearly 1 in 3) have a criminal record. Additionally, people with records are on average only half as likely to get a callback after submitting an application compared to those without a record. The structure of current state laws is a major barrier to participation in the labor force.


The study produced by NELP examined existing laws in 40 states, and graded each state based on the effectiveness of their laws at creating licensing opportunities for people with criminal records (see chart attached). The researchers grouped the grades into 5 nominal categories ranging from most effective to unsatisfactory, and developed grades based on these four criteria:

  1. Does the law prohibit the blanket rejection of applicants with conviction histories?
  2. Does the law incorporate EEOC Factors which include consideration of whether a conviction is occupation-related and how much time has passed since the conviction?
  3. Does the law limit the scope of record inquiry or the consideration of certain types of record information?
  4. Does the law require consideration of rehabilitation?   

The study’s primary criticism of the laws was their inconsistent, vague, and unnecessarily restrictive nature. The laws sometimes only applied to certain convictions or jobs, and often gave licensing boards the discretion to decide with little or no guidance.

Some examples of the vagueness: 

  • New Mexico: “Behavior that gravely violates the accepted moral standards of the community”
  • Utah: “A crime that involves actions done knowingly contrary to justice, honestly or good morals”
  • Idaho: “An individual can become a certified public accountant only if he/she are of ‘good moral character’, which means lack of a history of dishonest dealings.”

Twenty-five of the forty states examined received “minimal” or “unsatisfactory” rating. The study gave only Minnesota its “most effective” grade. Minnesota’s law prohibits a blanket ban based on conviction, meaning just because someone has a criminal record that does not automatically disqualify them for licensure. Minnesota also prohibits denial based on a conviction unrelated to the position, requires consideration of the time elapsed since conviction, and lists clear standards for considering rehabilitation. Minnesota forbids licensing boards from rejecting licensure based on a conviction when the individual has been released for over a year and shows “sufficient rehabilitation”.  

Plenty of research exists that focuses on the difficulties people with criminal records face when attempting to find employment. However, with the percentage of American jobs that require licensure growing, policy needs to shift its focus on examining licensure practices. The Brookings Institute estimates nearly 30 percent of American workers need a license to perform their job. Maybe the problem is not a poor job market, but inability to acquire jobs based on state laws that broadly reject applicants with certain records regardless of their qualifications or evidence of their rehabilitation. 

The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), administered by the CSG Justice Center, reports that licensing boards impose over 25,000 licensing restrictions nationwide. Over 10,000 of these restrictions apply automatically regardless of a crime’s relationship to a particular license, evidence of rehabilitation, or the time since conviction.

Responsible policymaking should address these barriers embedded into licensing laws, and develop opportunities for people with criminal records. Nearly one third of the population are willing workforce participants, but are being denied entry based on their criminal past, and not their current qualifications. 

Overall State Grades

Blue Star Families, Quality of Life and Spouse Employment

By Donna Counts

The 2016 Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey summary was released in January 2017.  The Blue Star Survey is an annual snapshot of the state of military families and the largest nongovernmental survey of its kind and provides information needed to understand the wellbeing of military families, critical information since family and individual wellbeing is key to the success of the nation’s all-volunteer force.  According to the survey, just over half of all military personnel are married, while 36 percent are married with children.   Survey respondents indicated family quality of life is the top reason for leaving the service.  When asked about their top concerns, 37.9 percent of military spouses site their employment as a major concern.

Military service members and their families often have to move across state lines, and these moves can be difficult on military spouses as they try to maintain their own careers. More than one-third of military spouses are in an occupation that requires them to have a license, and licensing requirements are set at the state level with significant variation from state to state.

Frequent moves and unpredictable work schedules make it difficult for find a job and creates financial stress for the family.  The 2015 Demographics Report prepared by the Department of Defense, the latest report that is available, found that 79 percent of active duty spouses had moved across state lines or abroad in the past five years, and 27 percent of spouses reported that it took ten months or more to find employment after a move.  Perhaps not coincidentally the 2016 Blue Star Families report found that 79 percent of military spouses felt that military spouse status has a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career, and 63 percent of military spouses encountered licensing challenges due to relocation.  This difficulty is reflected in the 2016 unemployment rate for military spouses of 21percent compared to the 4.9 percent national unemployment rate. 

Significant obstacles for military spouses finding employment are state occupational licensing laws.  State licensure can disproportionately affect military families because military families tend to be more mobile.   Other segments of the workforce also face difficulty when moving from place to place due to occupational licensure.  Licensure can ensure that licensed professionals have the qualifications to meet quality, health and safety standards.  Licensure can also help to encourage a higher level of skill and professionalism which can translate into higher wages.  However, licensure can present obstacles to workers attempting to enter a profession by increasing the training requirements and associated costs or when workers move across state lines and have to comply with different state licensing requirements.  While licensure can increase individual wages, it can also increase the prices consumers pay for the services provided by the license professional.   

The problem for military spouses more prevalent in states with a high concentration of military personnel and families.  The following chart illustrates the state-by-state distribution of active duty military and families and the following table presents data on the peent of the workforce requires an occupational license.  California is the state with the highest military population with 324,666 and 20.7 percent of its workforce requires some sort of an occupational license.  Virginia has the second largest military population with 291,225, and 17.2 percent of its workforce requires an occupational license. 

There is little disagreement that licensure serves a needed purpose if the quality, health and safety standards are obvious.  In this case, policy best practices for establishing occupational licensing include standardizing the licensing requirements for occupations and encouraging inter-state compacts that recognize licenses from other states.  When the benefits to the public are less clear and licensure requirements create significant barriers to employment, then it may be time for state leaders and policymakers to re-evaluate the licensure requirements. 

Reading resources:

Blue Star Families. 2016 Annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey: Comprehensive Report. Falls Church, VA: Blue Star Families.

Department of Defense (DoD), Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy (ODASD (MC&FP), 2015 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, 

Department of Defense (DoD), Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), Active Duty Spouses and Active Duty Members:  Spouse Employment, Satisfaction, Financial Health, Relationships, & Deployments, Results from 2015 Survey of Active Duty Spouses & 2013-2014 Status of Forces Surveys of Active Duty Members, July 2016.  

Spouse Employment Report, Institute for Veterans and Military Families, Syracuse University, February 2014.  

Council of State Governemnt, Capitol Ideas, Top 5 Issues in Workforce, 2017 Special Issue

Resolution Supporting Intergovernmental Collaboration on Occupational Licensing for Military Spouses

By CSG Executive Committee

  Download the Resolution in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

WHEREAS, military service members and their families make sacrifices for the sake of our country and in defense of our freedom; and

WHEREAS, military families often move across state lines during their service and immediately following; and

WHEREAS, military spouses move households to accommodate their families at a rate ten times higher than non-military spouses; and

WHEREAS, thirty-five percent of military spouses work in an occupation that requires a professional license; and

WHEREAS, the top three occupations held by military spouses – teaching, child care services, and nursing – require occupational licensing; and

WHEREAS, current state laws vary dramatically regarding licensing requirements for many occupations; and

WHEREAS, sixty-eight percent of married service members reported their spouse’s ability to maintain a career impacted their decision to remain in the military by a large or moderate extent; and

WHEREAS, streamlining the occupational licensing process supports military families and promotes employment.

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that The Council of State Governments requests that the Congress and the Executive Branch work with state and local governments to promote policies which ease the transition for military service members and their families when they move across state lines by streamlining occupational licensing, which will ease the financial and administrative burdens placed on those families by the need to frequently regain their professional credentials.

Adopted by The Council of State Governments’ Executive Committee this 11th Day of December, 2016 in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Licensure by Endorsement/Military Spouses

By CSG Committee on Suggested State Legislation

This Act allows military-trained applicants who have been awarded a military occupational specialty and military-spouse applicants who are licensed in another jurisdiction to receive certain occupational licenses in this state. The applicants must meet requirements, either in the military or in another jurisdiction, that are substantially equivalent to or exceed this state’s requirements for licensure. The Act generally requires state occupational licensing boards to issue occupational licenses to military-trained applicants and military-spouse applicants who meet this state’s statutory requirements. The Act authorizes licensing boards in the state to issue temporary practice permits to such applicants until a license is granted or a notice to deny a license is issued.

Submitted as:
North Carolina
SESSION LAW 2012-196
Status: Enacted into law in 2012.

Download the 2014 SSL Volume

Licensure by Endorsement

Professional Licensing

By Audrey Wall

In an effort to contain costs while also providing better consumer service, government agencies throughout North America are developing business plans and restructuring professional and occupational regulatory agencies. Increased technology use is bringing new security problems along with enhanced access for all stakeholders. The professional licensing stakeholder community is expanding to include international regulators.

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About the Author
Pam Brinegar is the executive director of The Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR), which provides educational programs for professional licensing officials. CLEAR is an affiliate of The Council of State Governments.