Imagine this — a young man from a troubled background in North Carolina gets into a minor scuffle at a bar, resulting in his imprisonment for simple assault. While behind bars, the man takes the time to reflect on his mistakes, promising to never resort to such acts again and dedicating himself towards pursuing a better life.
Three years after being released, the young man has lived a crime-free life. He has his criminal record expunged as a sign of him starting a new life and having repented for his past mistakes. He finds work at a local eyeglasses shop, discovering a new passion for serving customers looking to improve their vision. He realizes that his true calling in life is to become an optician, hoping to rise up the ranks in the eyeglasses shop and perhaps start one of his own someday in the future.
Unfortunately for him, North Carolina state law requires a license to become an optician, and he now gets the privilege of venturing through North Carolina’s onerous occupational licensing application process to hopefully obtain one of the state’s most burdensome licenses.
After finally completing a 36-month apprenticeship program, spending hundreds of hours studying for the 4 required exams, and spending $590 of his hard-earned cash on the application and exam fees, the young man later discovers that his licensure application was denied.
It turns out that the North Carolina Board of Opticians, which mainly consists of practicing opticians (who benefit from gatekeeping to decrease competition), had denied his application on grounds that his short criminal record made him unsafe to practice the job, despite his clear efforts towards fulfilling the licensure requirements and the plethora of evidence showcasing his commitment to moving past his problematic past.
Ultimately, the board was able to deny his application because they were allowed to consider his expunged criminal record (something banned in 18 states), they were allowed to consider a crime that occurred many years ago (something limited in 13 states), and, ultimately, they were allowed to deny the license on the basis of his violent crime despite it not being “directly related” to being an optician because North Carolina exempts sexual and violent crimes from its “directly related” test (something not exempt in nearly all other states).
Now, the young man is being denied his right to practice his desired occupation, potentially banishing him to a life of limited social and financial mobility and pushing him into tough situations that could incentivize him to recidivate.
With an estimated 2 million people in North Carolina having a criminal record, occupational licensing posits additional artificial barriers to working many jobs for vast swathes of the population, helping explain why 40% of North Carolina’s inmates return to prison within three years. With limited economic opportunities, ex-offenders may be pushed into circumstances where criminal activity seems more appealing.
Proponents of occupational licensing argue that certain vital professions need to be filled with qualified people with clean records to ensure that North Carolinians are kept safe. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want a psychotic murderer to be my local state-licensed doctor either. However, hundreds of occupations are licensed in North Carolina, many of which do not need such restrictive protections in place. All opticians do is help people fit eyeglasses and contact lenses — most states don’t require licensure for the job at all. Other innocuous occupations licensed in North Carolina that aren’t licensed in many other states include sign language interpreters, auctioneers, and carpenters.
Many changes can be made to make the occupational licensing process fairer for well-intentioned ex-offenders. Firstly, North Carolina can reduce or eliminate many occupational licenses that cover non-vital occupations, especially those not licensed in most other states (like opticians!). The state can also join the rest of the country in getting rid of the sexual and violent crime exemptions for its “directly related” test, ensuring that only crimes directly related to the desired occupation can prevent someone from practicing it. Lastly, the state can join 18 other states in banning the consideration of expunged criminal records, records that can’t even be seen by virtually anyone else.
These marginal reforms won’t magically solve the major recidivism and social justice issues facing the Tar Heel State. However, these feasible and nonpartisan reforms will mean a lot to the few people it may impact. It will also make our criminal justice system a little fairer, our economy a little stronger, and our communities a little safer.
Jazper Lu is from Dalian, China and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.