Manuel Sandoval, a Smart Justice leader, speaking on behalf of several bills, including HB 5248, which passed. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror

Connecticut’s 2022 legislative session certainly gave journalists and policy wonks a lot to talk about. For 12 short weeks, hours of coverage were devoted to some successful pushes —including boosts to children’s mental health programs and one-time tax cuts— and some not-so-successful ones, like advocacy for more affordable housing and an effort from fourth-grade students to make lollipops the state candy.

Still, one bill headed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk mostly avoided the headlines, but it deserves applause from both sides of the aisle. House Bill 5248 will open opportunity to thousands of people with prior felony convictions by reducing burdensome occupational licensure requirements, which is sure to not only improve their personal circumstances but have broader social benefits as well.

And if that isn’t enough, the bill’s principles can also be applied to Connecticut’s overall system of occupational licensure, making it more individualized and effective for all would-be workers in the state.

HB 5248’s premise is simple: the state agencies that issue occupational licenses, permits or certificates for a variety of career paths would not be able to deny approval to applicants summarily with a criminal record anymore. Instead, they would have to evaluate whether the conviction affects the applicant’s ability to do the job, how much time has passed since the offense occurred and evidence of the applicant’s rehabilitation. Plus, while current law prohibits agencies from denying licenses to cosmetologists, barbers and hairdressers based on prior convictions, the legislation adds embalmers and funeral directors to the exemption list.

HB 5248 rolled through the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support—unanimously in Committee, 138-9 in the House and with just one dissenting vote in the Senate— and with good reason: no matter on what side of the aisle legislators sit, nearly everyone can see benefits in the policy.

When licensing restrictions concerning convictions are loosened and better tailored, former offenders’ futures are no longer held captive by crimes they already paid for. During a press conference with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, one Central Connecticut State University student spoke personally to this effect. While she was convicted 10 years ago and had never reoffended, she feared her record would obstruct her goals of becoming a social worker. The new legislation clears her path and the paths of thousands in her position.

Connecticut Republicans arguably have the most reason to celebrate the passage of HB 5248. First, with many conservatives making public safety a crux of their platforms over the last few years, HB 5248 expands returning citizens’ opportunities to put away illegal activities in favor of meaningful, lawful careers, thus reducing the odds they will reoffend. Studies bear this out, with two finding that states with more burdensome occupational licensing regimes have higher rates of recidivism.

In fact, according to the Arizona State University study, the states with the greatest number of licensing requirements saw a nine percent increase in recidivism between 1997 and 2007, while the states with the fewest experienced an average of a three percent decline. The researchers concluded that heavier licensing burdens mean a greater likelihood of former offenders being turned away at the door, which limits their options to pursue legal, meaningful work.

Second, restrictive occupational licensure regimes should be opposed in general by advocates of limited, effective government, and even more so when they are locking the most vulnerable out of opportunity. Virtually no one would disagree that careful licensure requirements are needed for high-stakes careers where lives and livelihoods are at stake—doctors and engineers, for instance—but do home entertainment installers really need licenses, exams, and hours of education and practical experience?

Connecticut is the only state to require it. This and other licensing requirements for hundreds of other professions uselessly heighten barriers to opportunity for every would-be worker, not just former offenders. Applying the common sense, individualized principles of HB 5248 to Connecticut’s broader occupational licensing structure would better tailor the process so that everyone, not just those with criminal records, reaps the benefits.

While other bills may have gotten more time in the spotlight this session, HB 5248 deserves recognition of its own. Not only will it improve the livelihoods of former offenders who have already paid their debts to the community, it will also reduce the odds that they feel cut off from opportunities to make a decent, above-board living. And while that’s certainly enough to celebrate, it also suggests that reducing licensure burdens on everyone —former offenders as much as anyone else—would open opportunities for faster, meaningful career advancement in Connecticut.

Sarah Wall is the Northeast government affairs manager at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. She lives in Hamden.