It is typical in Michigan to require a person to be of “good moral character” in order to be eligible for an occupational license. According to state law, good moral character means “the propensity on the part of the person to serve the public in the licensed area in a fair, honest, and open manner.” Although this term has been used as a standard for doctors going back centuries, it has recently come under legal challenges for its imprecision and subjective nature. A recent analysis summarizing this criticism states:
There is widespread criticism of the use of good moral character as a licensing standard or a deportation standard. Critics complain the term places too much discretion in officials to exercise their individual whims and prejudices. These critics argue that the phrase fails to give helpful guidance to license applicants and license holders. They argue that the standard forces those to whom it is applied to speculate about the course of conduct to which they must conform their behavior to become eligible for, or to retain, a professional or occupational license.
In Michigan, many occupations have provisions in state statute that automatically prevent people from getting a license if they have committed any of a wide variety of crimes. This includes, health occupations, school employees (except with special permission from the superintendent and school board), insurance agents, law enforcement, private investigators, security guards, and more.
For other occupations, the state’s office of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has the authority to evaluate whether a felony conviction or civil crime is “not likely to serve the public as a licensee in a fair, honest, and open manner.” So a criminal conviction can prevent someone from obtaining a state license, but the head of the state’s licensing apparatus is able to intervene and allow a person to work.
Though the state and licensing boards are not supposed to consider a criminal record that is unrelated to an individual’s ability to serve the public fairly, in practice regulators can deny anyone from obtaining a license if they fail to meet the subjective moral character standard. This applies even for civil crimes or misdemeanors, which may appear on someone’s record for missing a child care payment or causing minor property damage.
The National Employment Law Project looks at how states treat people who have criminal records when it comes to licensing. Nearly all states prevent people with a criminal record from getting some occupational licenses. Many states prevent people from ever getting a license again if they have a criminal record, even if it is unrelated to the area of work they seek a license for. NELP gives Michigan a “minimal” grade because it has a “blanket ban” on some people from ever gaining a state license, has a vague standard concerning statutes of limitation and does not make it easy for a person to demonstrate that they have been sufficiently rehabilitated.
These blanket bans on licensing for anyone with a criminal record is important because of the close connection between employment and recidivism rates. A first-of-its-kind study by Dr. Stephen Slivinski of the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University compared state occupational licensing barriers and the effects on ex-offenders. He writes:
This study estimates that between 1997 and 2007 the states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9 percent. Conversely, the states that had the lowest burdens and no such character provisions saw an average decline in that recidivism rate of nearly 2.5 percent.
An ex-offender is much less likely to reoffend if he is gainfully employed. By refusing to consider giving licenses to people with a criminal record, Michigan increases its recidivism rate. Unless a person has been found guilty of a crime directly related to the area they want to work in, the state should not stand in their way of obtaining a license to work legally.