Donald Trump can still be president, but he could be barred from being a bartender, car salesman — or real estate developer

The former president’s conviction spotlights how state policies make it hard for people with felony convictions to find good jobs.

by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, June 5, 2024

Last week, former President Donald Trump was convicted of 34 felonies in New York — becoming the first former (and perhaps future) president to be convicted of a felony. While the conviction will not prevent him from pursuing the presidency, he nonetheless joins over 19 million people in America with felony convictions. Unlike the vast majority of people with this status, Trump’s immense wealth and power will likely insulate him from the struggles most will face in securing much less prestigious jobs. That’s because many states permit if not outright facilitate bias against hiring people with records — especially roles that require professional licenses.


Criminal records lock people out of the job market, making everyone less safe

Most people who have criminal records are not billionaire reality TV stars or real estate moguls with wealth and connections to fall back on. For them, getting a job is a matter of survival, and having a record greatly diminishes their chances of success. That’s because a variety of policies across the country effectively disqualify and deter people with records from obtaining employment.

Chart showing that in 2016, 39 percent of people in state prisons said they were jobless in the month before their arrest, and 78 percent had at least one previous conviction leading to incarceration.

This dynamic traps people in a vicious cycle of poverty and policing that makes everyone less safe in the end. Nearly four out of every 10 people in state prison — most of whom had past convictions — were jobless in the month leading up to their arrest. Black people (46%) and women (53%) in state prisons were especially unlikely to have been employed during that time. Meanwhile, more than 600,000 people return to their communities from prison each year and struggle to secure employment, housing, healthcare, and care for children in large part due to restrictions imposed on those with criminal records. Even though people in this situation are more likely to be actively seeking jobs than the general public, they are far more likely to be rejected by employers and report unemployment at a rate five times higher than the general public. These differences are rooted in discriminatory policy choices, not individual aspirations or capabilities.

Even when people in these circumstances do find work, they are often relegated to the most insecure and low-paying positions. Licensed occupations can provide a path to better job security, but that option is foreclosed by counterproductive policies such as these.


State laws ban people with felony convictions from holding many jobs

State laws and policies give employers ample opportunities to reject potential workers simply on the basis of their having been convicted of a crime. Though explicit employment bans that prohibit hiring from these populations have been modified in some states in recent years thanks to tireless advocacy, decision-makers in most places still enjoy wide discretion to exclude people from certain kinds of work on these grounds.

This is especially true for occupations that require professional licensing, such as bartenders, exterminators, healthcare workers, and car salesmen. People who want to work in real estate — either as agents or developers — are often required to submit to criminal background checks as part of the licensing process, too. Though these bans most frequently target people who are convicted of felonies in particular, certain misdemeanors can also preemptively disqualify people as well.

Whether explicit or discretionary, occupational licensing restrictions for people with felonies on their records are widespread. Just a few examples include:

  • Pest control in North Carolina: No one can be issued an ID or work as an estimator, serviceman, salesman, solicitor, or an agent for any licensee if they have been convicted of a felony within three years of their application.
  • Car sales in Mississippi: People who want to sell cars must have “good moral character, honesty,” and “high ethical standards” — qualities that are “presumptively” not met if they were, among other things, convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors.
  • Bartending in Florida: Licensed bars cannot employ anyone as a manager, person in charge, or bartender who has been convicted of a felony anywhere in the U.S. in the past 5 years.
  • Any health professional in Virginia: Previously licensed healthcare workers face mandatory license suspensions if convicted of a felony. This includes early-career positions like certified nursing assistants, veterinary technicians, and peer recovery specialists. Nurses, in particular, could be prevented from receiving licenses or certifications for any felony or misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude.”
  • Firefighters in Florida: Firefighters must not have been convicted of certain misdemeanors, a felony, or any crime punishable by at least one year of imprisonment.


Employment bans need not be explicit to be effective

Even when jurisdictions do not explicitly ban people with felony convictions from obtaining occupational licenses, they typically give licensing agencies so much discretion that they can deter potential job-seekers with records from applying. If you have a record but want to work as a plumber’s apprentice in Texas, you have to fill out an additional extensive “Supplemental Criminal History Information” form. In New York, meanwhile, people with criminal records are not explicitly banned from working in the real estate profession, but they are not entitled to receive real estate licenses without the express permission from the Secretary of State, either. Hurdles such as these are enough to keep most people from applying in the first place.

In other places, discretionary bans are designed to target people who have felony convictions that are “directly related” to the work they would be doing. In Texas, for example, Trump’s convictions for falsifying business records could easily be construed as grounds to deny him a license to handle insurance, taxes, or (as he loves to do) hiring and firing people as an employee for a professional employer organization.



It’s important to reiterate that most people with criminal records have to navigate these challenges with far fewer resources and connections, and far less power, than Donald Trump. Though he officially has a felony record, he will not encounter the majority of these barriers to making money, let alone surviving. In the coming months, we will likely see clear examples of how rich and powerful people like Trump are insulated from the consequences of a criminal record that millions of the most vulnerable people in society — typically the primary targets of the criminal legal system — are forced to endure each day. This will ultimately not be a lesson in equality in justice, but a reminder of the freedom from punishment that people in Trump’s position enjoy even in the rare instances that they are convicted of their crimes.

That being said, the lesson we take from Trump’s conviction should not be that the system needs to get tougher. In fact, the opposite is true: the fact that such employment policies are counterproductive to basic safety interests and are so unequally applied are strong reasons to lower barriers to work for the average person with a criminal record — not erect new ones. At the very least, anyone who believes that a felony conviction shouldn’t disqualify someone from the most powerful office on the planet must also agree that it makes no sense to prohibit others with felony convictions from serving in more ordinary roles as plumbers, pest control workers, and bartenders. Fortunately, there are plenty of measures states can take to make life easier for people with criminal records:

  1. Enact occupational licensing reform: States should reform their licensing practices to eliminate the automatic rejection of people with felony convictions.
  2. Ban blanketed employer discrimination: Criminal records are not good proxies for employability. Additionally, because of racially disproportionate incarceration rates, organizations who discriminate against people with criminal records may also be contributing to racial discrimination and are therefore subject to litigation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  3. Implement automatic record expungement procedures: Having an automatic mechanism for criminal record expungement that takes into account the offense type and length of time since sentencing would, in the near term, help formerly incarcerated people succeed and would, in the long term, promote public safety.
  4. Issue a temporary basic income upon release: Providing short-term financial stability for formerly incarcerated people would operate as an investment, helping to ease reintegration and provide public safety and recidivism reduction benefits that would result in long-term cost savings.
  5. Make bond insurance and tax benefits for employers widely available: Some governmental bodies offer insurance and tax incentives for employers who hire people with criminal records, protecting against real or perceived risks of loss. Increasing the availability of such programs would provide hesitant employers with added financial security.

For more information about the kinds of policies that prevent people with criminal records from obtaining occupational licenses, the various collateral consequences of those policies, and state-by-state comparisons, the following organizations offer excellent resources:

Brian Nam-Sonenstein is a Senior Editor and Researcher at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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