Upholding the rule of law is one of the main functions of government. It’s likely that a majority of Arkansans want those concerned with justice to become productive citizens rather than break the laws again after serving their sentence. But does the state government represent the interests of our residents by creating an environment where people can get back on their feet? Some of the rules in the system establish hidden penalties, or barriers, for people trying to re-enter the workforce and earn an honest living. These obstacles are also known as collateral consequences of conviction.
Collateral consequences are a second thought in the justice system. Ordinary court cases are argued for days or months with parties representing both parties, but rules that create collateral consequences do not receive the same attention. Many of these rules seem reasonable, but they falter when inspected, failing to take into account the detrimental effects they have on members of the justice system. For example, in Arkansas, if you don’t pay child support, you can’t get your commercial driver’s license (CDL). At first glance, this appears to be an incentive to discourage people from dodging child support. But preventing someone from getting their CDL removes a pathway to productive employment. They may then be more likely to engage in illegal activities to make ends meet.
Evidence suggests that our state is not doing as well as other states in our treatment of those affected by justice. According to National inventory of collateral consequences of conviction, Arkansas has 984 collateral consequences. These rules constitute 984 barriers and sanctions for people impacted by justice. This number is among the highest in the United States. Missouri has 685 collateral consequences and Mississippi has 864. The more barriers our government puts up for ex-offenders, the harder it is for them to find legal work. These numbers tell us that an Arkansan with a criminal past will be less likely to get back on track than someone with a similar past in Missouri or Mississippi.
An employer can choose not to hire someone with a criminal past, but should the government ban people involved in the law from practicing licensed professions? Many licensing boards require background checks which may deter someone from attempting to obtain a license. Anyone in Arkansas can apply pesticides at home, but to make a living applying pesticides, the code states that an “applicant must prove to the satisfaction of the [Arkansas State Plant] board of directors that it is morally and financially responsible.” This rule may constitute an additional penalty for persons previously convicted.
The question we need to answer as a state is, “What do we want our justice-affected individuals to do? If we want them to work, we have to let them work. Yes, some of these laws make sense. We don’t want sex offenders teaching kindergarten. We don’t want car thieves to be car dealerships. But even ex-criminals need to be allowed to do something legal so they don’t resort to criminal activity.
In Arkansas, we don’t even allow ex-felons to work with the already dead. You must pass a background check to be an embalmer. If an ex-criminal has corrected his life and learned about nutrition and fitness, he cannot become a dietitian. The Arkansas Dietetics Licensing Board may deny her application based on her prior conviction. Ex-criminals may also be denied a barber’s license or unable to register as an interior designer.
What happens to ex-offenders if they can’t find work? They may continue to seek legal work, give up employment altogether, or resort to crime. As a research student at the Arkansas Center for Economic Research, I looked at these statistics. The unemployment rate includes people looking for a job who couldn’t find a job, the activity rate lists the number of people working and looking for a job, and crime can be represented by the imprisonment rate. I have found that states with a high number of collateral consequences tend to have higher unemployment, lower labor force participation rates, and higher rates of imprisonment. While it is true that correlation does not equal causation, it is hard to ignore that the available data matches the theory.
We should take crime very seriously. Punishment must be administered to uphold law and order. Even so, we must also be careful not to motivate other criminal behavior. Once those affected by justice have paid their debt to society, we must have a rational policy that allows people to be productive residents of Arkansas.
Caleb Vines is an economics student and research fellow at the Arkansas Economics Research Center at the University of Central Arkansas. His opinions are his own.