Candidate Tells Legislature to Make Professional Licensing Harder for Former Felons

November 16, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

As a South Florida criminal defense attorney, I was disappointed to see comments from our state’s attorney general suggesting that he’d like to make professional licenses tougher to get for convicted felons. According to a Nov. 3 article from the Associated Press, Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is running for governor, objects to a law requiring Florida licensing agencies to grant licenses to former felons who had their civil rights restored and have completed a three-year waiting period. The law provides an exception for licenses directly related to the crimes. For example, someone accused of embezzlement while working as an accountant would have no right to a CPA license.

In a meeting of three Florida House of Representatives panels, McCollum said he’d like that law repealed or modified. He said he believed it tied the hands of the licensing agencies, forcing them to grant licenses to people who would not otherwise receive them. The committees are studying the issue in response to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel article detailing how the screening process failed to stop convicted felons from working as caregivers for children, the disabled and the elderly. McCollum would like the waiting period expanded to five years and to give agencies the power to revoke licenses if new information comes to light. George Sheldon, the secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, added that he’d like a requirement that candidates wait until a background check is finished before beginning to work.

I agree with Sheldon, and with the license revocation suggestion by McCollum. But as a Miami criminal defense lawyer, I have strong reservations about making it more difficult for ex-felons to obtain the tools they need to build new, law-abiding lives. The state can and should be extra careful when considering whether to grant licenses to former felons -- but for the most part, our system already has the necessary safeguards in place. As noted above, ex-convicts must have their civil rights restored before this law applies, a lengthy process requiring an application, a hearing, an investigation and sometimes letters of support from employers and community members. In addition, they are not entitled to professional licensing in areas related to their crimes. The Sun-Sentinel investigation found many people working as caregivers in violation of that rule, but the newspaper blamed inconsistent laws, incomplete background checks and failure to enforce the law for most incidents.

Like almost everyone in Florida, people who have committed crimes need to earn a living. But access to employment is especially important for people who are struggling to overcome a criminal past, because financial stress can push them into habits they’re trying to overcome. The deck is already stacked against ex-felons looking for jobs, thanks to their time away from the workforce and prejudice from prospective employers. The state of Florida should absolutely protect the vulnerable people under the supervision of state-licensed caregivers, but it shouldn’t erect more obstacles in their way unless those obstacles serve the goal of public safety. Some of the suggestions in the AP article do that -- but others would just penalize people who have already served their time. As a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney, I believe society as a whole benefits when ex-offenders don’t face unreasonable barriers to employment and reintegration into society.