Colorado is opening professional licensing to more residents with criminal records

Colorado state Reps. Jennifer Bacon and Shannon Bird explain their bill to open licensing to more people with criminal convictions.

Beginning next month, employers could have a wider pool of licensed professionals to consider for openings, as a new state law will make it easier for individuals with criminal convictions to be certified to work in more than 50 professions.

House Bill 1004, which was sponsored by Democratic Reps. Jennifer Bacon of Denver and Shannon Bird of Westminster and signed by Gov. Jared Polis on June 5, is an ideological successor in many ways to the “ban the box” law passed in 2019. That statute barred employers from requiring job seekers to check a box on initial application forms if they have criminal backgrounds — an admission that was a barrier to some companies considering people who’d completed sentences and struggled to find employment.

This new bill, which goes into effect on Aug. 7, bars state licensing boards from considering criminal convictions more than three years after a conviction or the completion of a sentence, whichever comes later. And when boards with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies do consider past convictions, they can only do so if the criminal record relates directly to a particular profession.

Significant numbers of Coloradans need licenses

This regulatory rollback is significant because DORA administers more than 50 regulatory programs governing professions, occupations and businesses that affect 886,000 licensees and about 65,000 businesses and institutions, according to its website. That means about one-quarter of Colorado’s labor force is required to get some sort of license or certification at a time when almost one-third of Americans have a criminal record.

Hiring individuals with criminal records has become less verboten to employers who have suffered through an extended period in which there are nearly two job openings for every unemployed Coloradan. But while felony convictions can’t automatically bar Coloradans from receiving licenses now, licensing boards have significant latitude to consider criminal records when deciding whether to grant a license.

HB 1004 limits that latitude with the three-year lookback period and the requirement that any consideration of criminal history must be directly connected to a profession, although it does not affect federal licensing that still can bar certification due to criminal records.

 It also puts the burden on regulators to prove that a criminal record should bar granting of licenses, and it allows residents to ask regulators to determine before they apply for a license whether that criminal history could be an obstacle to certification. If regulators reply that it could be, they also must advise petitioners of any potential remedy that could allow for qualification for licensing.

Why sponsors wanted to help those with criminal records

Bacon, who is considered one of the leaders of the progressive flank of the House Democratic caucus, and Bird, who is one of its most moderate members, seemed to approach it from two different angles.

Bacon, as well as sponsoring Democratic Sen. James Coleman of Denver, said that barriers such as licensing that make it harder for formerly incarcerated Coloradans to get jobs only lead to recidivism, robbing people of their chance to turn around their lives. If people can’t find ways to earn money legally, they are more likely to find ways to earn it illegally, she said several times during debate on the bill.

Bird, meanwhile, emphasized how HB 1004 can help to alleviate workforce shortages in industries from construction to truck driving by making entry into those sectors easier for people looking to restart their lives. Occupational licensing can limit access to professions and effectively can cut down on who employers can bring in and train, and the new law will change that somewhat, she said.

“Really, this bill is about second chances and not allowing government to get in the way of a person to be gainfully employed,” Bird told the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee during a Feb. 15 hearing. “Our bill doesn’t allow a person’s past to permanently prevent their ability to be employed.”

Legislature debated different approaches to criminal records

HB 1004 passed without receiving a single “no” vote against it.

That legislative embrace contrasted sharply with the reaction to another proposal, Senate Bill 12, which would have created a $15 million pilot program to offer as much as $3,000 to individuals leaving incarceration and enrolling in workforce-training programs. After being met with skepticism about the size of the offering and the effect it would have, sponsors of the bill asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to kill it, seeing it had no road to passage.

The question now is how much employers — who can still ask about job seekers’ criminal records, but just not on the initial application form — will embrace the chance to hire people whose felonious pasts previously disqualified them from consideration.

Several employers spoke highly to legislators about their willingness to consider employing those with criminal records if they had the chance.

“A step in the right direction”

Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican who owns a belt-buckle manufacturing company, said that after hiring his first worker with a criminal conviction and being impressed with his work ethic, he began to employ the practice more frequently.

Chris Wright, the founder and CEO of Liberty Energy of Denver, told the House committee that he employs “dozens” of formerly incarcerated individuals, many of whom have no degrees. Removing further the licensing barrier gives him as an employer more ability to choose who can do a job well rather than having the state restrict who he can hire, he said.

“We need every opportunity possible for people born in unfortunate circumstances to have the opportunity to have jobs and careers,” Wright said. “This bill is a step back in the right direction of making it easier to be employed.”