Eight state-based and national advocacy organizations – including the ACLU of RI, the NAACP Providence Branch, the National Employment Law Center, and JustLeadershipUSA – have sharply criticized the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) for a “disturbing trend” of “undermining a major goal of criminal justice reform by increasing the barriers for people with past criminal records or substance use disorders to obtain professional licensing.” The five-page letter to DOH Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott highlights several recent Department rule enactments or re-adoptions that the groups say unfairly allow for the disqualification of people with any criminal record from obtaining professional licenses in a number of fields – ranging from EMTs to midwives to physical therapy assistants.
Among the recent actions highlighted in the letter is an August 2018 rule to require that people applying for physical therapist or physical therapy assistant licenses undergo a full criminal background investigation, without providing any guidance on how entries on that record should be evaluated. The letter states that “a twenty-year-old drug conviction could have an adverse licensing impact on someone who has worked for years, successfully, to stabilize their life” given that there is no time limit on how far back a criminal record can be considered. Moreover, the regulations also allow arrests that did not result in conviction to be grounds for licensure exclusion, a practice that the groups say will have a significant racially discriminatory impact.
The letter cites other recently filed DOH regulations that, despite objections from groups, similarly maintain or expand the use of criminal record checks to potentially deny licensing opportunities. For example, applicants for midwife licenses will now also be subject to criminal record checks with no standards to decide disqualification, and they will continue to be subject to discipline for undefined “immoral conduct.” Massage therapists can be denied a license on the basis of any criminal record, as can EMTs for a “violation of any federal or state law,” including civil matters.
The letter to Alexander-Scott notes that in each instance, the DOH summarily rejected the groups’ concerns about the scope and impact of the background check standards, instead replying with minor variants of a one-sentence explanation that the restrictions were for “the safety of patients and the integrity of public health.” Objecting to DOH’s “relentless efforts to make it difficult for formerly incarcerated or convicted people and individuals with substance use disorders to obtain professional licenses,” the groups said the agency “has demonstrated a callous disregard for the notion of rehabilitation that underlies Rhode Island’s purported commitment to criminal justice reform.”
The letter further notes that there are “more than 70,000 Rhode Islanders [who] have a past felony record. This is to say nothing of people with misdemeanor records or with felony arrests not followed by convictions.” In addition to pointing to the large number of people potentially affected by the regulations, the letter emphasized that discrimination against people with criminal records “is also an issue of equity that should be of the utmost importance to RIDOH. As in other states, justice-involved Rhode Islanders are disproportionately low-income people of color, whose access to meaningful employment is hindered not only by base hiring discrimination but by barriers to licensing.”
The letter concludes by asking the Department “to stop making it more, rather than less, difficult for people who have been involved in the criminal justice system to enter professions that will help them turn their lives around” and to instead “reverse course and collaborate with our organizations over the next year” to promote occupational licensing processes that give a fair chance to all Rhode Islanders.
Employment in licensed fields is a crucial component of successful reentry for many people who are trying to exit the criminal legal system at the conclusion of their sentence. These jobs could help people steer clear of future involvement with the criminal legal system while enabling them to contribute to the local economy and state tax base.
The Department’s actions stand in contrast to a national movement that seeks to eliminate barriers to employment that formerly incarcerated people are forced to confront. In the past year alone, ten states have enacted provisions designed to reduce these barriers.
“Occupational licensing leads to career ladders that create economic mobility, access to better medical benefits and health care and other opportunities to live a better life,” said Roberta Meyers, Director of the National H.I.R.E. Network. ‘The Department of Health’s recent actions to create vague criminal record barriers to occupational licensing conflict with its mission to protect and promote the health and safety of Rhode Island residents and are contrary to our nation’s promise of offering second chances.”
“Whether or not this is what they intend to do, the Department of Health is enabling and entrenching the systemic, racialized harm that has come to define the state’s criminal legal system,” added Megan French-Marcelin, Fair Hiring Project Coordinator at JustLeadershipUSA. “Each of the Department’s decisions to authorize the exclusion of people with criminal records is a slap in the face not just to them and their families, but also to the advocates and other policymakers who’ve committed to making Rhode Island a leader in criminal justice reform.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “This Administration has commendably committed the state to promoting justice reinvestment. But that means little if people find that their past history with the criminal justice system keeps them locked out of a broad array of state-licensed occupations. It is critical for agencies like the Department of Health to revise, not perpetuate, these counter-productive practices.”