The Unfair Roadblock: More than 600,000 individuals are released from federal and state prisons every year; hundreds of thousands are leaving local jails or are serving their sentences in the community. As these individuals seek employment or housing and work to become productive members of society they will not only need to overcome the stigma associated with having a criminal record – even after they have completed their sentence and fully paid their debt to society – they will often encounter federal and state laws and policies that make successful reentry much more difficult. (See the Legal Action Center’s report, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry, at http://www.lac.org/lac.)

How to Remove the Roadblock: Certificates of rehabilitation are an essential resource states can offer to support reentry – and thus promote public safety – by lifting statutory bars to jobs, licenses or other necessities such as housing that result from a conviction history. Certificates may be used to provide a way for qualified people with criminal records to demonstrate rehabilitation or a commitment to rehabilitation. However, only six states currently have laws authorizing certificates of rehabilitation or other similar means of removing legal barriers arising from a criminal record separate and apart from seeking a governor pardon, which are rarely granted in many states.

This tool kit provides materials advocates can use to seek passage of laws creating certificates of rehabilitation, including:


Occupational licensing and employment laws regulate many professions as well as unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. Examples of regulated occupations include barbers/cosmotologists, healthcare professionals, engineers, embalmers, waste management workers, real estate professionals, accountants, contractors, security guards, and many others. The statutory requirements for obtaining occupational licenses vary among the states and according to the type of license. Generally, however, occupational licensing statutes have two types of requirements: competency and character.

Although individuals with criminal records may be able to fulfill the competency requirement through training, experience, or education, the character component creates a more difficult obstacle. Under many licensing laws, a felony conviction is an automatic disqualification. In other instances, a felony conviction is evidence of the lack of “good moral character” which may also be a disqualifier. No matter how old their conviction record or how qualified they are for the job or license, these individuals are blocked from entering those occupations.

Of the more than 600,000 individuals released from state and federal prisons each year, nearly two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release. Most experts agree that employment is key to the successful reintegration of people with criminal records, and thus critical to reducing recidivism and promoting public safety. In the absence of employment, an individual is much more likely to commit another crime. The automatic bars to many types of employment and licensing only worsen the shortage of jobs for people with criminal records.

Certificates of rehabilitation offer a way to make those individuals employable and help them reintegrate into society. Yet only 6 states – Arizona, California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and New York – offer certificates of rehabilitation (or a similar mechanism) to remove occupational bars that prevent people with conviction records from being employed in certain occupations.

In addition to encountering bars to employment and licensing, individuals with criminal records often face other barriers, such as in housing or voting. Certificates of rehabilitation can also be used to lift these barriers as well.

The Value of Certificates of Rehabilitation

Certificates of rehabilitation benefit job seekers, employers, and the state in a number of ways:
  • Employers retain their discretion to individually assess every applicant and do not have to forego an opportunity to hire qualified employees because of some federal, state, and local laws and regulations that exclude people with certain criminal records.

  • Individuals with criminal records who have completed relevant job training and education programs can be eligible for those jobs.

  • Criminal records remain accessible for law enforcement purposes.

  • Certificates can offer a presumption of rehabilitation for job applicants--or at a minimum an individual’s commitment to rehabilitation--and shift the burden to the employer and licensing agency to demonstrate that the individual is not suitable for the job or license sought.

  • Certificates can provide clear guidance to occupational licensing agencies or employers when considering an applicant’s suitability for a particular license or job. For example, New York and Illinois have enumerated in their laws the factors employers must consider when evaluating a job applicant with a criminal history. These factors include:

    1. the state’s public policy of encouraging the employment of people with criminal records;
    2. the specific duties of the job;
    3. the bearing, if any, the criminal offense(s) will have on the applicant’s fitness to perform such duties;
    4. the time elapsed since the conviction;
    5. the age of the job applicant at the time of the offense;
    6. the seriousness of the offense(s);
    7. any information regarding the applicant’s rehabilitation and good conduct; and
    8. the safety and welfare of a specific individual or the general public.

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Six states offer certificates of rehabilitation or other similar means of removing occupational bars: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. These laws differ in how extensively they restore the individual’s civil rights, eligibility criteria, and procedures. Click here for descriptions and text of each of the six state laws.

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Advocates can play a key role in educating public officials about the critical importance of helping qualified people with criminal records obtain employment in order to reduce recidivism and facilitate their successful reintegration. Certificates of rehabilitation can serve as a tangible product that affirms a person’s commitment to rehabilitation and serve for the benefit of an individual with a criminal history who strives to successfully reintegrate and to employers and others who consider criminal histories in an application process. Recent advocacy campaigns have succeeded in convincing Illinois to create certificates of rehabilitation to lift some occupational licensing bars and other states are considering legislation or administrative processes. For more information about other state policy advocacy underway in other states, contact the Legal Action Center’s National H.I.R.E. Network, www.hirenetwork.org.

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The Legal Action Center’s National H.I.R.E. Network drafted Model Legislation that states can use to create certificates of rehabilitation for qualified people with conviction histories who have paid their debt to society. We also developed a list of the Key Provisions we think state legislation creating certificates should include, all of which are incorporated in our model law.

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If your state is considering legislation to create certificates of rehabilitation or other means to restore the rights of people with criminal records who have paid their debt to society, alerting supportive groups and individuals and asking them to contact their legislators to support the legislation is an effective way to bring about change. Click here for a model Action Alert you can shape for your specific needs and use to seek grass roots support.

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Click here for a model Sample Letter you can send along with the Action Alert to help your grass roots supporters write to their elected officials urging them to support legislation that creates certificates of rehabilitation to restore the rights of people with criminal records who have paid their debt society. Once again you can shape this Sample Letter to meet your specific needs.

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