Former Inmate’s Dream of Becoming a Firefighter Derailed by Unjust Criminal Record Restrictions

Los Angeles, California – Finding employment can be a challenging task for many individuals, but for Fernando Herrera, the obstacles are even greater. As a teenager, Herrera committed two felonies, resulting in a lifelong ban from his dream job as a firefighter in the state of California.

Despite his troubled past, Herrera turned his life around and discovered his passion for firefighting. While serving time in prison, he worked as an unpaid firefighter and continued his journey upon release as a volunteer firefighter. Herrera even played a vital role in extinguishing the devastating 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. Despite becoming an exemplary citizen, California law prohibits Herrera from obtaining EMT certification, a requirement for becoming a paid firefighter, solely due to his criminal record.

Unfortunately, Herrera’s situation is not unique. Nationwide, millions of job seekers face similar barriers as all 50 states and Washington, D.C. impose restrictions on individuals with convictions from obtaining professional licenses. These restrictions often seem arbitrary and unnecessary. For example, individuals seeking to work as hair stylists or commercial vehicle drivers may be denied licenses solely based on their criminal background.

In Pennsylvania, Courtney Haveman was denied a license to work as a skin care specialist because of two DUIs, despite being sober for years and having a willing employer. Haveman fought back and won her case with the assistance of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm. However, the fact that she had to resort to litigation to pursue a career in a spa is a clear indication of the need for reform.

Moreover, 30 states can deny a license to work even if an individual was arrested but not convicted. Ifrah Yassin, a single mother, experienced this firsthand when she was briefly arrested on suspicion of robbery in 2013. Even though prosecutors dropped the charges after realizing her innocence, Minnesota regulators still attempted to prevent Yassin from working in a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities 10 years later. Interventions from the Institute for Justice were necessary to rectify this unjust situation.

A significant portion of the working-age population, approximately one-third, possesses a criminal record, making it difficult for them to secure employment. Shockingly, over 60 percent of individuals leaving prison remain unemployed a year later, despite actively seeking work. Recognizing the need for change, some states have taken steps to reform their licensing laws. For instance, New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently signed the Clean Slate Act, which allows returning citizens to have their records expunged, increasing their chances of employment. Similar legislation has been enacted in 12 states over the past five years.

While these efforts are commendable, they fail to address the other aspect of the problem – the restrictive licensing laws that prevent employers from hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds. New York’s Clean Slate Act does not change this reality, as government regulators can still access expunged records when determining an applicant’s suitability for licensing.

Certain professions are particularly affected by these restrictions. Healthcare careers, for instance, are largely inaccessible to individuals with criminal records. Erma Wilson’s dream of becoming a registered nurse in Texas was shattered due to a tainted drug conviction resulting from judicial misconduct. Furthermore, Colorado imposes restrictions on all jobs at behavioral health institutions, meaning that individuals with criminal histories are barred from performing even menial tasks such as mopping floors or serving food in these facilities.

Addiction recovery counselors are targeted in Tennessee and Virginia, preventing individuals with personal experience of overcoming substance abuse from pursuing careers in this field. Rudy Carey, for example, faced obstacles in Virginia due to a single assault conviction from 2004.

Self-employment can sometimes serve as a workaround for those with criminal records. However, even in these cases, regulatory bodies may interfere. Joe Armstrong in Tennessee faced resistance from the Federal Communications Commission when attempting to operate a radio station, and Mark Wilks in Maryland encountered challenges from the U.S. Department of Agriculture when seeking to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a retail partner.

Sadly, litigation often becomes the only recourse for individuals with criminal records seeking employment. Courtney Haveman’s case in Pennsylvania led to legislative changes, preventing licensing boards from denying applications based on criminal history unless the convictions are directly related to the occupation and pose a substantial risk to the public.

In contrast, Herrera’s fight for reinstating his firefighter aspirations in California ended in disappointment. Despite his efforts in court, the state has not addressed the need for reform.

Reforms are long overdue, and individuals should not have to rely on legal representation to secure employment. While New York’s Clean Slate Act is a step in the right direction, eliminating unnecessary licensing laws would be a more impactful solution. Encouragingly, several states have made progress in this area. South Carolina, for instance, passed a law in 2023 to eliminate vague terms such as “good moral character” and “moral turpitude” as grounds for license denial. Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado have also implemented licensing reforms in recent years.

In conclusion, it is essential to provide individuals with criminal records the opportunity for a fresh start. Mistakes should not define a person’s entire life. Through meaningful reform, society can break down barriers and enable individuals to rebuild their lives and contribute positively to their communities.