Enforcing the rule of law is one of the primary functions of government. Likely, a majority of Arkansans want justice-impacted individuals to become productive citizens rather than breaking laws again after serving their sentences. But does state government represent our residents’ interests by creating an environment where people can land back on their feet? Some of the rules within the system establish hidden sentences, or barriers, for people who are trying to get back in the labor force and earn an honest living. These barriers are also known as collateral consequences of conviction.
Collateral consequences are a second thought in the justice system. Regular court cases are mulled over for days or months with parties representing both sides, but the rules that create collateral consequences do not receive the same attention. Many of these rules seem sensible, but they falter under inspection, failing to consider the adverse effects they have on those in the justice system. For example, in Arkansas, if you fail to pay child support, you cannot obtain your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). On the surface, this seems like an incentive to discourage people from dodging child support. But blocking someone from getting their CDL removes a pathway to productive employment. They may then be more likely to engage in illegal activity to make ends meet.
The evidence suggests that our state is not doing as well as other states in our treatment of justice-impacted individuals. According to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, Arkansas has 984 collateral consequences. These rules constitute 984 barriers and punishments for justice-impacted individuals. That 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 more difficult it is for them to find legal work. These numbers tell us that an Arkansan with a criminal past will have less opportunity to get back on track than someone with a similar past in Missouri or Mississippi.
An employer may choose not to hire someone with a criminal past, but should the government disallow the justice-impacted individuals to practice licensed professions? Many licensing boards require background checks that can deter someone from attempting to get a license. Anyone in Arkansas can apply pesticide in their home, but to earn a living applying pesticide, the code says that an “applicant must prove to the satisfaction of the [Arkansas State Plant] board that he is morally and financially responsible.” This rule can act as additional punishment for the previously convicted.
The question we must answer as a state is “What do we want our justice-impacted individuals to do?” If we want them to work, then we must let them work. Yes, some of these laws make sense. We don’t want sex offenders to teach kindergarten. We don’t want car thieves to be car dealers. But even ex-felons must be allowed to do something legal so they are not resorting 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-felon corrected his life and learned about nutrition and fitness, he can’t become a dietician. The Arkansas Dietetics Licensing Board can reject his application because of his previous conviction. Ex-felons may also be denied a barber’s license, or be unable to register as an interior designer.
What becomes of ex-offenders if they can’t find work? They can keep searching for legal work, give up on employment entirely, or resort to crime. As a student researcher at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics, I looked up these statistics. The unemployment rate captures those looking for jobs who haven’t found one, the labor force participation rate catalogs the amount of the population working and looking for a job, and crime can be represented by imprisonment rate. I found that states with a high number of collateral consequences tend to have higher unemployment, lower labor force participation rates and higher imprisonment rates. 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 mindful not to motivate further criminal behavior. After justice-impacted people have paid their debt to society, we must have rational policy that allows people to be productive residents of Arkansas.
Caleb Vines is an economics major and a student research fellow for the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas. His views are his own.