In January of 2017, Juan Carlos Montes de Oca, a Tucson cosmetologist who used to be homeless, organized an event with his classmates called Haircuts for the Homeless. The goal of the event was to offer barber services and manicures to the homeless, including veterans, as a way to do a kind act for others in memory of his mother, who lost her hair during her battle with cancer.
But that goal was subverted when an anonymous observer filed a complaint stating that Montes de Oca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.” As a result, the Arizona Board of Cosmetology decided to investigate Montes de Oca for providing unlicensed cosmetology services at his charity event, claiming that offering free haircuts without a license is a “real risk.”
Considering how many parents give their children free haircuts, this risk is likely overstated.
In a hand-delivered letter, Arizona governor Doug Ducey told the board to immediately end their investigation and assess no penalties to Montes de Oca, whose story he called “inspiring.” The board dropped their investigation and Montes de Oca was able to stay in cosmetology school and continue giving back to his community. (For those who want to learn more about Montes de Oca’s story, here is a video.)
But this story does not end here. Last month, an Arizona newspaper published an investigation into Montes de Oca that detailed his past — after a tough upbringing, he was arrested in 2010 and served two and a half years in prison. Yet after returning to productivity and the workforce, he faced an ongoing smear campaign just for offering charitable haircuts to homeless veterans.
After reading the article, Ducey tweeted his support for Montes de Oca — and for second chances, saying that past mistakes “shouldn’t prevent them from having a chance at a fresh start.”
This month, Ducey followed through on his commitment to second chances when he signed a bill that makes it easier for those with criminal records to get occupational licenses. Thanks to the large, diverse coalition that the bill’s sponsor, senator Judy Burges (R.), built, Senate Bill 1436 passed both Arizona chambers unanimously.
Occupational licensing creates high barriers to work for everyone, but for people with criminal records, these barriers often are insurmountable and permanent. Many licensing agencies can consider old convictions, convictions that are unrelated to the occupation, minor infractions, and even arrests not resulting in conviction.
Occupational licensing creates high barriers to work for everyone, but for people with criminal records, these barriers often are insurmountable and permanent.
After someone commits a crime, they face two options. They can find a job, reenter society, and substantially lower their likelihood of reoffending, or they can remain out of work, turn to government dependence, and have a higher likelihood of committing another crime.
Because of SB 1436, for an Arizona licensing board to deny an applicant, the applicant must have been convicted of a felony or violent crime. Furthermore, this crime must be substantially related to the state’s interest in protecting public safety, and allowing the applicant to work in the licensed profession must result in a higher likelihood of reoffending than if the applicant were denied the license.
This reform will create certainty for applicants, who will be able to petition licensing boards to confirm that they will be approved before they invest in costly and timely mandated training. Considering that the average education and training requirements for low- to moderate-income occupations in Arizona is more than two years, getting this guarantee isn’t just helpful — it’s necessary.
Montes de Oca has said that after he left the prison system, work was what gave his life meaning. As Shoshana Weissmann and Jarrett Dieterle of the R Street Institute wrote about his story, “The government is supposed to provide needy citizens with a safety net, not ensnare them in a web of red tape.” Thankfully, Arizona policymakers came together to help ensure that more individuals with criminal records are not shut out of experiencing the power of work.