Jordan Harris

State Rep. Jordan Harris was among a group of state legislators who introduced bills that would amend state occupational licensing laws to make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to find jobs after their release. — TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

A group of state legislators from both major parties joined forces this week to introduce a pair of bills aimed at helping former prisoners obtain licensing upon their release from prison in fields they trained for while they were incarcerated.

State Sen. John DiSanto (R-New Bloomfield) introduced Senate Bill 637 and state Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Camp Hill) introduced House Bill 1477. The bills are aimed at removing employment barriers and reducing recidivism for people with criminal records.

“Why should a theft or drug conviction early in life forever prohibit you from becoming a barber or massage therapist or a social worker?” DiSanto asked. “Blanket prohibitions without considering the circumstances don’t just do the applicant a disservice, but our entire commonwealth in need of a talented workforce.”

Pennsylvania requires state licensing for more than 30 occupations, including cosmetology, real estate and nursing.

As part of the state’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, inmates are given the opportunity to study in 22 different areas. More than 60 inmates pass licensing tests in cosmetology and barbering each year, but are later turned down for licenses because of their criminal records, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“We are supposed to rehabilitate inmates. We are supposed to have them come back [to society] better than when they went in,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), a co-sponsor of the House bill. “The truth is, many of them come out and experience barriers that many times send them back to prison.”

Harris said 60% of formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanians find themselves behind bars again within three years, and it costs taxpayers $1.27 billion.

“If more formerly convicted people can become employed doing the trade they learned, they’re more likely to stay out of jail and contribute to our economy and our communities and save taxpayer dollars,” Harris said.

The move for occupational licensing reform stems from a larger effort to update Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system to help people return to the society after prison. It comes on the heels of another effort in 2018, called the Clean Slate Act, which seals records of low-level crimes for people who stay out of legal trouble for 10 years.

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