Handcuffed: State regulations hamper licensing of ex-offenders

Last updated on March 2nd, 2021 at 10:07 am

In late 2014, Trista Pomella was charged with a misdemeanor cannabis possession offense in Tampa, Florida. 

Pomella made her court appearance, paid a $280 fine, and, when she moved several months later with her boyfriend to Wisconsin to be near his family, she assumed the incident was behind her. 

“I don’t even have a booking photo,” she said. “I was never handcuffed. There was just a paper, ‘Here’s your court date. Come see us.’ No big deal. At least I thought it wasn’t.” 

Pomella had seven years of experience as a licensed hairstylist by the time she arrived in Wisconsin. After taking some time off work, she began the process of getting her credentials to resume her career here.

But when Pomella applied for her cosmetology license through the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, her misdemeanor reared its head. 

Under state law, anyone with a previous conviction must account for their past infractions on their professional license application.

“Our paramount concern is protection of the public,” said Al Rohmeyer, chief legal counsel for DSPS. “We don’t want to be issuing licenses where the public may be harmed by us doing that. We take that very seriously and that’s obviously why the process takes so long.”

Pomella was puzzled by the list of documents she was required to submit, including certified copies of the police report, criminal complaint, judgement of conviction and sentencing, sentencing verification, along with a personal statement detailing the circumstances of her conviction. She had difficulty knowing where to find those documents – complicated by the fact that they were housed in an out-of-state clerk of courts office – and how to submit them to DSPS. 

“I got the paperwork. I called DSPS. They sent me a bunch of links,” she said. “But a lot of it didn’t make sense.”

In the meantime, she took a $9/hour retail job at Sally Beauty in Greenfield, earning a little less than half of what she would make as a stylist. After she enlisted the help of a local salon owner to navigate the process, it took six months before she was approved to cut hair.

“I was getting to a point where I was about to give up on my career, which was heartbreaking,” said Pomella, who today manages Cost Cutters in Greenfield. “This is what I was meant to do. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Lengthy, complex credential process

Pomella’s story is familiar for those with a conviction on their record who have been in the position of seeking a professional license in Wisconsin.

Several cosmetologists and barbers interviewed for this story recounted similar experiences, describing the process of getting credentialed in the state as convoluted, costly and perplexingly long. After completing the required 1,000 or more hours of training and paying tuition for schooling, some said they nearly abandoned their professional plans because of licensing challenges. 

One Milwaukee-area hairstylist said that when she enrolled at Empire Beauty School, she was never warned that an eight-year-old felony conviction from when she was 16 might be a hurdle to her eventually obtaining a license. But when she completed school in 2017, she faced roadblocks trying to obtain court documents to submit to DSPS. Some of her classmates did too, she said.

“I had to get a whole bunch of paperwork from the court, spend money on each copy,” she said. “It’s lengthy and time-consuming. No one was aware of that when they started school. I even know people who gave up trying to get their licenses because it was so challenging.”

Facing $35,000 in student loans, she couldn’t afford to wait.

“It’s embarrassing and stressful,” she said. “It gave me a lot of anxiety. It was like ripping off a Band-Aid of some old wounds. You already did what you’re supposed to do and all of the sudden you’re told it’s not enough and you possibly can’t get your license. I had a lot of sleepless nights. I cried.” 

It took three months for her license application to be approved. 

Bipartisan goals

As companies struggle to find talent in a labor market with a 3.3% unemployment rate in Wisconsin, some argue it’s an opportunity for employers to cast a wider net to those with criminal backgrounds.

Whether it’s seen as a matter of social justice or a pragmatic solution to pressing workforce shortages, the push to reduce barriers for job-seeking ex-offenders has largely enjoyed bipartisan support.

Former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration oversaw the expansion of programs that prepare prison inmates with specific job skills, such as computer numerical control machining and welding, to help them find work upon their release. Gov. Tony Evers’ first biennial budget included an expansion of correctional facility-based job centers to ease inmates’ search for employment. A new program for inmates to earn a barbering license is also planned.

In recent months, Department of Corrections secretary Kevin Carr and Department of Workforce Development secretary Caleb Frostman have implored employers to consider hiring ex-offenders.

Dave Hagemeier, owner of nine Milwaukee-area salons, said he wants to, but burdensome state licensing procedures have tied his hands as an employer.

Four years ago, Hagemeier, who with his wife Carol co-owns Signature Two Company, received a call from a job candidate who was preparing for her release from Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center.

“I had never as an employer engaged with a felon before; it just wasn’t something that had occurred to me,” he said. “But she was just so determined and compelling. I hired her … It really clicked for me that some people can put difficulties behind them and move forward strongly and confidently.”

Since then, he’s committed to hiring ex-offenders, and has worked with about 20 license-seekers as they navigate the state’s credentialing process. For the uninitiated, it can be intimidating and discouraging, he said.

“It can take months for a license applicant to track down all of this documentation; it can cost hundreds of dollars,” Hagemeier said. “It can be hard to travel across the state, or in some cases to other states, to convince police departments and court clerks to dig up records that can be 15 years old or more. And then it takes several months more for the DSPS to review and approve.” 

While screening is necessary to protect the public, Hagemeier said, the burdensome processes are blocking employment for some while disincentivizing employers from taking a chance on hiring ex-offenders. 

“The state is asking us to do our duty, but employers are being punished for it,” he said. “In my experience, the State of Wisconsin itself is the single biggest obstacle to licensing for ex-offenders.”

State Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, calls it a case of the “left hand not talking to the right” among state government agencies.

“The objective of the DOC is to get these people trained and reacclimated and reduce recidivism, which comes with job training,” he said. “And the objective of DSPS is to protect the public … If you’re involved with the DOC and in for drug abuse, that doesn’t substantially relate to cosmetology, and yet they require all the details of it.”

Lengthy approval process

Stephen Dale saw barbering as a way to turn over a new leaf.

The 58-year-old Milwaukee resident has a lengthy criminal record and for years struggled with mental health conditions that made it difficult for him to maintain steady employment. For a time, he found work doing home improvement projects, but the jobs were inconsistent and increasingly wearing on his body. 

“I decided to reinvent myself and go to barber school,” Dale said. 

He’s found stability with the help of medication. In 2018, he completed the barbering program through Milwaukee Area Technical College, which was paid for by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, completed 1,000 training hours and passed both state-mandated licensing exams. 

DVR connected Dale with Hagemeier, who hired him on the spot to work full-time as a barber under Dale’s six-month temporary license granted to new graduates.

Securing a permanent license was more difficult. The application required Dale to account for his conviction history, tracing back three decades. It cost more than $200 for him to print the police and court documents from his convictions.

He was also required to produce written statements about each of his offenses, the facts that led to the incidents, who was involved, what happened and why, penalties and verification that he completed all sentencing requirements. Nine of his offenses happened more than 20 years ago and he didn’t remember some of the incidents from his 20s.

“Every time I see this stuff, I hate to even look at it,” Dale said. “I read it and I’m like, ‘dumb, dumb, dumb. What was I thinking? What was I thinking?’ I have a lot of anxiety filling out these papers and having to write statements and remember what I did 27 years ago.” 

While Dale waited on his pending application, his temporary license expired. Hagemeier kept him on as a receptionist. Legally, Dale couldn’t cut hair, but Hagemeier didn’t want to lose him as an employee. 

“I paid him to push a broom,” Hagemeier said. “The salon’s not that big; we don’t have that much sweeping to do.” 

Dale couldn’t earn tips or commission. He looked for part-time work to pay his bills in the meantime. 

“I like earning my pay; I don’t like sitting around,” Dale said. “I don’t like not bringing in any revenue.” 

Dale said he might have given up altogether without Hagemeier’s help. 

“The majority of people like me wouldn’t even bother to go through all that stuff,” he said. “They wouldn’t even know where to start, so they’re dead in the water. So they won’t get their licenses and they’ll end up cutting hair illegally.”

From the time he submitted his paperwork, it took 14 weeks for Dale’s permanent license to be approved.

Application review backlog

With the volume of license applications DSPS receives, ensuring public safety and issuing credentials expediently can be in competition with one another.

DSPS issues about one million professional licenses in Wisconsin annually. Its oversight includes more than 240 professions, ranging from cosmetologists and barbers to doctors to matchmakers to funeral directors – each regulated by different statutes that require fine-tooth-comb reviews of applicants. 

With a staff of 250, DSPS has two full-time attorneys and a paralegal, along with several limited-term employees, dedicated to working on credential applications that require legal review. 

“It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of information for our attorneys to master, but it’s statutorily required of us,” said DSPS secretary Dawn Crim. “…We realize it does take a bit of time because our attorneys apply the law to the individual unique factors or circumstances and then they make determinations based on the interest of the public.”

The agency had a backlog of pending applications when Crim was appointed in early 2019 to lead the agency, and it continues to wade through the pileup, she said.

Late during Walker’s administration, DSPS had one attorney and one paralegal, along with several limited term employees, working in that area. It has since added one additional full-time attorney and has diverted several other attorneys, paralegals and staff to work part-time or overtime to process credentialing legal reviews more quickly. Crim said she requested 20 additional employees during the biennial budgeting process but was approved for just six of those positions, none of which were in the agency’s credentialing legal review area. 

“We’re making some headway, but (the backlogs) do still exist because we’re terribly understaffed,” Crim said. 

Meanwhile, potential changes to state law could offer some relief.   

Crim worked with Kooyenga on a bill that would establish “look-back limits” in the agency’s licensing processes. Under the proposal, DSPS could choose not to investigate a number of nonviolent and common offenses that don’t substantially relate to the profession. Those offenses include a first-offense OWI that occurred more than five years ago, underage drinking-related violations that occurred more than five years ago and nonviolent ordinance violations or other nonviolent offenses that occurred more than five years before the application date.

“We recognize that certain offenses committed long ago and in the absence of any subsequent legal issues are almost never a barrier to licensure, and yet our attorneys are required to review the facts and law at hand in every instance,” Crim said. “I believe in second chances. Our agency opens doors to careers in rewarding professions, and this legislation gives us the tools we need to open those doors quickly.”

It would eliminate what Kooyenga said are unnecessary barriers for people whose past mistakes have no bearing on their ability do their job. He cited an example of a woman in her 30s who needed to provide documents regarding an underage drinking ticket from her teens in order to get her cosmetology license.

“You don’t keep a scrapbook of this stuff,” he said.

“(It’s) going beyond and above the original letter and intent of the law, saying you’re going to (provide) an underage drinking ticket from when you were 16,” he added. “I don’t see where in the law you need to do that. “ 

Another bill would allow DSPS to issue provisional licenses with the goal of allowing license seekers to begin work right away. Currently, licenses must be approved by a professional credentialing board, some of which meet only quarterly. That waiting period can put people who live paycheck to paycheck in a tough spot, Kooyenga said.

“This is an absolute necessity for many Americans at that (income) level,” he said.

A third proposal is aimed at streamlining the professional licensure process by providing passive review, meaning if a credentialing board doesn’t take action within 10 days on a license that DSPS has recommended for approval, the license would automatically be approved.

The initial proposals have bipartisan support, Kooyenga said, with Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, along with Democratic Rep. Kaylan Haywood of Milwaukee and Republican Rep. Warren Petryk of the Town of Washington (near Eau Claire), sponsoring the legislation.

The changes would give some flexibility to her department, Crim said. 

“We really are working hard to control what we can,” she said. “We’re looking at people and processes, being responsive and assisting those applicants. The fair and balanced approach is what we’re trying to do.”

In the meantime, Crim said her agency is doing what it can to work with the DWD and DOC’s efforts to find ex-offenders gainful employment. She encourages inmates who are enrolled in apprenticeship programs to get started early on the license application process so they can start their careers as soon as possible. 

“When the governor (Evers) took office, he talked about connecting the dots,” she said. “We are constantly talking with one another as secretaries to ask how do we work together to improve efficiencies, to improve processes and do the appropriate handoffs. This is an example of a way for us to work closely together for a smooth transition.” 

Dept. of Corrections assistance

Jonelle Todd considers her story a case study in reentry programs working the way they should.

While serving time in Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac County, Todd completed the facility’s cosmetology and barbering program, including the 1,800 required training hours, and set up job interviews with salons in preparation for her release, while DOC largely handled the paperwork associated with getting her license. 

“A big concern for me was, as I walk out the doors, what was I going to do?” she said. “How was I going to get my life back and my kids back? … What they intended to do worked perfectly in this situation. I came out with a skill the day I walked out the door that I never had before. I was able to find an employer that was willing to work with me.” 

She was hired as a stylist, and within a year, moved into a manager role with one of Hagemeier’s salons. Four years after her release, she’s now a senior manager with Signature Two Company, overseeing its Mequon, Germantown and West Bend locations. In that time, she said she’s seen other stylists face challenges getting their credentials, delaying their shot at “remaking their lives,” like she did.

“The whole point of what we do in the (corrections) system is trying to hope we can rehabilitate people and get them back in the community,” she said. “If we don’t give people a chance to be rehabilitated and our goal is to do that, it’s hard to kind of move forward. I can’t think of a single case that making it harder for someone to get a job has ever been beneficial to society or improved people’s lives.”

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