This time last year, EBCLC advocate Vinuta Naik was fielding frequent phone calls from clients whose path to gainful employment had hit a deeply unfair dead end.
“Every day I would get calls from women from all over California calling me to say, my license application was denied, what do I do? How am I going to pay my rent if I can’t work?”
Now, thanks to a policy victory launched by Vinuta, her colleagues Jael Myrick and Sarah Crowley*, and an Occupational Licensing Reform coalition of more than 25 organizations- and made possible by EBCLC supporters- more than eight million Californians can apply to be licensed in a field regulated by the Department of Consumer Affairs without worrying about past convictions getting in the way.
Through their work on EBCLC’s Clean Slate/Reentry Legal Services team, Vinuta, Sarah, and Jael have helped hundreds of people with past criminal convictions navigate the complex regulatory scheme of California’s occupational licensing boards. Californians with past criminal convictions have historically faced some of the greatest barriers to employment access of any Americans, largely because of the slew of state-operated licensing boards that have had the discretion to deny license applications on the basis of criminal record.
Last month, Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2138, a bill written by Vinuta and Sarah and championed by a strong statewide coalition of advocates led by Jael. The bill opens pathways to family-sustaining careers to millions of Californians by creating new rules for the 41 licensing boards governed by California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses practitioners of counseling, cosmetology, chiropractic care, and many other professions.
The bill makes common-sense, data-driven reforms such as “washing out” records of most crimes committed seven or more years ago and banning the use of dismissed convictions to deny a license. Research shows that people who have gone six years since their first point of criminal justice system contact are only marginally more likely to commit a new crime than people with no criminal record at all.
“It’s an exciting achievement, but it’s long overdue,” said Jael, who steered the coalition to victory by leveraging his strong legislative skill set- before joining EBCLC, he spent six years working with CA Senator Nancy Skinner. “There are ways in which California has been on the forefront of creating sensible, progressive criminal justice policy, but this is not one of those cases. Quite the opposite- we’re finally catching up.”
Lawmakers were swayed by the argument that states with lower barriers to employment and reentry boast much lower recidivism rates than California’s, which has climbed over the last decade.
AB 2138 was signed into law on September 30, 2018. At EBCLC, Jael and Vinuta wasted almost no time in celebrating the victory before regrouping to discuss the next big reform opportunity. As wildfires rage across California, inmates have been on the frontlines of fighting the flames- but after their release, few are able to pursue careers as EMTs.
“There’s a lot of attention on the brave people protecting us from fires, so we want to keep their fight on the forefront,” said Jael. “We already have our sights on that next legislative cycle.
“Home care nursing is another big one,” said Vinuta. “I work with a lot of women who took care of their dying relative, gained really crucial caretaking skills, and now can’t be licensed in that field because of a decades-old conviction that has nothing to do with their ability to do that job.”
This is what EBCLC calls “tree trunk” advocacy: strategic policy change informed directly by the most impacted communities. “Our clients guided every step of this process,” Vinuta said. “The changes they want to see are the ones we’re going to fight for.”
“Absolutely,” Jael added. “There’s unprecedented momentum for occupational licensing reform in California. So no, we’re not just going to give up now.”
*Special thanks and gratitude to our coalition partners at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Sadie Wathen, Root and Rebound’s Eva DeLair (also with LSPC), and Adam Slote of Slote, Links, & Boreman, LLP for their valuable insight and time on this campaign.