Gov. Phil Bryant has signed the Fresh Start Act, protecting the 14th Amendment right of ex-offenders to obtain gainful employment.

Senate Bill 2781, authored by Sen. John Polk (R-Hattiesburg) and Mark Baker (R-Brandon), prohibits occupational licensing boards from using bureaucratic rules to prevent ex-offenders from working. The law requires occupational licensing boards to eliminate blanket bans and “good character” clauses used to block qualified and rehabilitated individuals from working in their chosen profession. 

“Both federal and state courts clearly affirm that occupational licensing boards must provide an objective and legitimate reason to deny an ex-offender a license to work,” said Dr. Jameson Taylor, Vice President for Policy at Mississippi Center for Public Policy. “According to the Mississippi Supreme Court, the freedom to engage in a profession is a ‘God-given, constitutional liberty.’ Mississippi licensing boards need to clean up their rules so they don’t run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Fresh Start requires them to do so while leaving every licensing board free to set high standards for their specific profession.” 

Under the Fresh Start Act, licensing boards must adopt a “clear and convincing standard of proof” in determining whether a criminal conviction is cause to deny a license. This includes the nature and seriousness of the crime, the passage of time since the conviction, the relationship of the crime to the responsibilities of the position and evidence of rehabilitation. The law also creates a preapproval process that allows ex-offenders to determine if they may obtain a particular license before undertaking the time and expense of training, education and testing. In addition, the law protects licensed individuals who fall behind on their student loans from losing their occupational license. 

“We have thousands of open positions available in Mississippi,” said Taylor. “We need skilled labor. We also have one of the highest ex-offender populations in the country. We shouldn’t let red tape prevent people from pursuing their dreams and supporting their families.”

According to a study published by Arizona State University, states with heavier occupational licensing burdens have much higher 3-year recidivism rates. More than 10 states have codified the protections contained in Fresh Start, including Tennessee and Georgia.

“Fresh Start leaves every occupational licensing board free to protect consumer health and safety by maintaining rigorous standards for licensure,” concluded Taylor. “But it also directs licensing boards to follow the Constitution by outlining legitimate reasons to deny someone a license. In the past, broad licensing restrictions have been used to keep “certain kinds of people” from working. Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, Mississippi is cutting red tape so that people who want to work can obtain good-paying jobs.”