Meko Lincoln of Rhode Island had spent 17 of his 46 years behind bars, locked in a pattern of addiction and crime that led to 16 prison terms. Lincoln, who is training to be a drug and alcohol counselor, wants those lost years to count for something more, but because regulations in Rhode Island and most other states exclude people with criminal backgrounds from many jobs, his record, which includes sentences for robbery and assault, may be held against him, the Washington Post reports. Across the U.S. more than 10,000 regulations restrict people with criminal records from obtaining occupational licenses, says an American Bar Association database. The restrictions are defended as a way to protect the public. Critics say the rules are often arbitrary and ambiguous.
Licensing boards in Rhode Island can withhold licenses for crimes committed decades ago, citing a requirement that people display “good moral character,” without taking into account individual circumstances or efforts toward rehabilitation. Such restrictions make it challenging for the formerly incarcerated to work in fast-growing industries such as health care, human services and some mechanical trades. These include the very jobs they’ve trained for in prison or in reentry programs like Lincoln’s. Licensing restrictions are among many obstacles to establishing a stable economic footing after prison. Incarceration carries a stigma, and many employers are leery of hiring ex-inmates. States with the strictest licensing barriers tend to have higher rates of recidivism, says Stephen Slivinski, an economist at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University. “In many states, a criminal record is a stain that you can’t wash off,” Slivinski said. “There is no amount of studying that can take away this mark in your past if a licensing board wants to use it against you.”