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A Fresh Start Will Change Lives

BY TAYLOR DAWSON

December 20, 2018 1:09PM

Taylor Walters has suffered from anxiety for almost as long as she can remember. She had her first panic attack in kindergarten and was prescribed anxiety medication shortly thereafter. As her anxiety worsened with age, she began to abuse her prescription to deal with the pain.

By the time she was in her early 20s, Taylor was trapped both in a cycle of addiction and incarceration. While always for nonviolent crimes, Taylor was arrested time and time again for being “in the wrong place with the wrong people.” No matter where she turned, she couldn’t escape the lifestyle that she knew wasn’t best for her.

After three probation violations, by the last time Taylor visited her local probation office, she knew every officer in the place. An officer who was not assigned to her one day called her into his office. While they were talking, he noticed that she had a cross ring on her finger. Though he wasn’t her assigned officer, he took it upon himself to make her an offer: spend 60 days in jail or check into a Christian rehabilitation program. With great hesitation, Taylor chose to spend 17 months in Teen Challenge.

Taylor Walters believes that decision to check into Teen Challenge completely changed her life. But even after a transformative year-and-a-half, Taylor still lived in fear of what life was like outside of addiction and the criminal justice system. Prior to spending time in and out of jail, Taylor was working on getting her education to be a licensed cosmetologist. Taylor owed a significant amount in court fees and fines, and she was afraid she would never be able to pay them off if the cosmetology school wouldn’t let her back in because of her criminal record.

One of the most substantial roadblocks to post-incarceration rehabilitation is Tennessee’s web of occupational licensing laws. There are over 110 different jobs in Tennessee that require a government license in order to work in that profession.

That is why Beacon Impact, our sister advocacy organization, worked on the Fresh Start Act in 2018. The Act creates a process for individuals to informally petition a licensing board on the front end to see if the board will deny their application for a license due to a criminal record before they spend thousands of dollars on an education that may be unnecessary. If the board does deny a license, the burden is now on that board to explain why the crime committed by the applicant is related to the license sought, and there is a formal appeal process in place for the applicant to challenge the board’s decision. This law should make life after incarceration easier for thousands of Tennesseans, while still preserving licensing boards’ authority when the person may indeed be a threat to public safety.

Taylor worked hard and achieved her goal of becoming a manicurist, but she shouldn’t have been afraid of being denied because of her past criminal record. The Fresh Start Act was an excellent step in the right direction, but more changes need to be made to Tennessee’s harmful occupational licensing laws to lessen the burden of transitioning to life outside of incarceration for people like Taylor.