How New Mexico can foster second chances

This op-ed was co-authored by Shannon Alford, a government affairs director at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The New Mexico prison population stands near 7,500 inmates. Nearly all these individuals will be released and will face many challenges as they rejoin their communities, one of which will be finding a job. Unfortunately, this task is made much more difficult by nonsensical state laws.

This is why our organizations — the Foundation for Government Accountability and ACLU of New Mexico — were recently together in New Mexico along with a bipartisan group of legislators, business leaders, and advocates to discuss a promising and necessary policy change: improving New Mexico’s occupational licensing regime.

Adopting reforms to state occupational licensing laws can make it easier for people with criminal records to find work and integrate back into society...

Adopting reforms to state occupational licensing laws can make it easier for people with criminal records to find work and integrate back into society, strengthening New Mexico’s workforce and economy and making its communities safer.

Nearly one in five workers in New Mexico requires government permission to work in their profession, in the form of an occupational license. Many of the boards and commissions that grant these licenses have the latitude to deny licenses to people with criminal records, even if the aspiring licensee has completed their sentence, has been law-abiding for years, and the underlying conviction had nothing to do with the profession in question.

During the last legislative session, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, introduced legislation to establish clear rules so that people with criminal records could have the education and training in their chosen career fields without fear of being unjustly denied a license to work simply because they made a mistake in their past.

The bill gained bipartisan support in the state House and Senate but was vetoed at the last minute. Fortunately, an effort is underway to introduce legislation with similar goals for the upcoming legislative session.

Oklahoma recently passed legislation to open doors to careers that require a license. The bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Zack Taylor, said it will “give people that have made mistakes in their past a second chance at professional licensing” and “doesn’t hide a person’s criminal record or require a business to hire them, but it does remove the barrier of restrictive licensing in many cases.”

Occupational licensing poses prohibitively high barriers to entry upon people working to get a fresh start by finding meaningful employment.

Similar legislation is also advancing with bipartisan support in Pennsylvania. Lauren Krisai of the Justice Action Network said “This legislation provides a pathway to employment for those who have earned a second chance, which will make Pennsylvania communities safer and its economy stronger.”

Occupational licensing poses prohibitively high barriers to entry upon people working to get a fresh start by finding meaningful employment. Obtaining an occupational license for 66 lower-income professions in New Mexico requires 520 calendar days of training and/or education and $266 in fees, according to a study by the Institute for Justice.

This is time and money that most recently incarcerated individuals are unlikely to have at their disposal. Research from the Pew Center on the States backs this up. They have concluded that states with burdensome licensing laws — like those in New Mexico — saw a 9% increase in recidivism, on average, in a 10-year period. Lower licensing barriers, including second-chance opportunities (like Oklahoma’s recent legislation), were associated with a 2.5 percent decrease in recidivism. And because these individuals find work, they are more independent and contribute to the economy and the tax base.

Occupational licensing laws are devastating for people trying to rebuild their lives after serving their sentences and create insurmountable barriers to employment. We should not continue to punish people after they have served their time.

New Mexico’s legislators should continue to fight for occupational licensing reform in the upcoming 2020 legislative session in order to provide a pathway to prosperity for people who have paid the price for their crimes. This will help strengthen the state’s economy, reduce recidivism rates, and ultimately make its communities safer by ensuring more people are contributing to society.

This op-ed was originally published in the Las Cruces Sun News. Shannon Alford is a government affairs director at the Foundation for Government Accountability. Paul Haidle is a senior policy strategist at ACLU New Mexico.

Stay informed

ACLU of New Mexico is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National