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Commentary: SC could boost economic recovery with second-chance licensing

LesterYoung

Lester Young

The pandemic devastated employment opportunities in many sectors across South Carolina during the past year. Rebuilding the economy after COVID-19 will require meaningful employment access for all South Carolinians, including those with criminal records.

Too often, a past conviction becomes a scarlet letter that prevents people from earning a living and moving forward. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, S.C. law imposes more than 650 consequences of conviction that directly block people with criminal records from being hired or create barriers to obtaining occupational licenses that are essential for certain jobs.

I felt the impact of South Carolina’s outdated licensing restrictions firsthand after I was released from prison in 2014. Incarcerated since the age of 19, I spent more than two decades transforming my life through education and mentorship.

When I got out, I was excited to pursue a career that would allow me to contribute to my family and community. I planned to become a licensed home inspector, which offered a solid income and the possibility of starting my own business.

I invested $1,800 in a training course, studied for the state exam and applied for the license. Then came the hearing in front of the Residential Builders Commission. I had to explain why I should be licensed despite my record. It was difficult to prepare for this moment without knowing how the crime I committed as a teenager would be assessed in light of the person I had become.

All the hard work I had done to change my life didn’t matter; the license was denied. It was a major setback that left me feeling hopeless. There was a silver lining, though: The frustration of this experience motivated me to become an organizer and advocate for second-chance hiring.

In the past few years, more than half the states have adopted second-chance licensing reforms, which give others like me a fair shot at well-paying licensed professions.

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Among them are Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Both Republicans and Democrats have championed these measures to ensure that government is not a roadblock to gainful employment for those with criminal records seeking jobs or the businesses that want to hire them.

South Carolina is behind the curve and hasn’t updated its law since 1996. S.295, sponsored by Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, would give others like me a fair shot at well-paying licensed professions by removing barriers to licensing. All South Carolinians would benefit. Formerly incarcerated people would have a clearer path to fulfilling careers that support their households. Communities would be safer, and taxpayers would be spared incarceration costs, because employment is a key factor in successful reentry and reduced recidivism.

And our state’s economic recovery efforts would be improved by uplifting all South Carolinians.

The bill would modernize licensing requirements by adding transparency and fairness to the process. Denials would be limited to crimes that directly relate to the profession and threaten public safety. Licensing entities would use clear guidelines to assess a record in the context of the whole individual.

In addition, it would remove vague requirements like “good moral character,” which could disqualify anyone with a conviction. It would allow potential licensees to request a pre-application determination to see whether their record is disqualifying before investing in training and education.

The bill won’t be back up for consideration until January, but a Senate subcommittee approved it before lawmakers ended the regular session this month. People who finish their sentences have earned a second chance. They should be able to use that to pursue their chosen profession.

Lester Young is a South Carolina resident and serves as the movement capacity building specialist for JustLeadershipUSA.

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