America Needs Drug Counselors, But Some People Are Banned From The Occupation For Life

By Andrew Wimer, Contributor
Rudy Carey is an experience and educated drug counselor, but a Virginia law keeps him from working with people who need help. Institute for Justice

Drug overdose deaths reached a record high in 2020, likely driven by the disruption and isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic. The preliminary findings by the Centers for Disease Control estimated more than 93,000 Americans died prematurely because of drug use. The CDC also finds that excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths annually. Every day, hundreds of Americans die because they have a crippling addiction.

Yet right now it can be hard for people struggling to overcome an addiction to get counseling that could save their lives. Mental health professionals are in high demand. One St. Louis-area psychiatrist told the New York Times earlier this year that she spoke with one person who called 20 mental health professionals without finding one with an opening. But yet one group of Americans who could make especially good counselors can find it difficult to enter the occupation.

People who have overcome an addiction and who go on to lead healthy, productive lives often see counseling as both a good job and as a way to give back. Not only do they bring a sense of purpose to the job, but they also intimately understand what it is like to live with addiction.

Rudy Carey of Fredericksburg, Virginia, began his struggle with addiction at age 18 after he had to make the difficult choice to take his father off life support. Alcohol abuse led to drug abuse and to bouts of homelessness. Finally, after years of abuse and spending time in prison, Rudy turned his life around.

He attended college, got his degree and counseled clients for years. He was even recognized by his employer as “counselor of the year.” In 2018 though, Rudy received devastating news: because of a criminal conviction from his old life, Virginia law banned him from working as a substance abuse counselor. While his employer thought it could employ him on as an independent contractor, this still did not comply with state law. When new management took over the center, they had no choice but to let him go.

Today, Rudy drives a truck to make ends meet. The work takes him away from his family for days at a time and while he tries to use his personal time to help people, he can never make a living doing the work he felt called to do.

In Virginia, there are more than 176 “barrier crimes,” that ban people from working directly with patients as a substance abuse counselor. In August 2004, Rudy was driving to buy drugs when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. Since his license was suspended, Rudy gave a fake name and social security number. That lie was quickly discovered and when the police officer tried to arrest and handcuff him, Rudy struck the officer.

Because he was convicted of assault on an officer, Rudy will never be able to be hired for any position that involves working directly with clients. It doesn’t matter that he completed more than 200 college credit hours or that he’s had no run-ins with the law in over 15 years. Most Americans believe in second chances, but what Rudy and others discover is that there are permanent punishments written into law.

Many states restrict people with criminal convictions from getting certain licenses and nearly 1 in 4 Americans needs a government license to work in their chosen occupation. Given that more than 70 million Americans have some sort of misdemeanor or felony conviction, many find that they are limited in their job choices by old, unrelated crimes.

In Virginia, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services reported that just in the past three years more than 1,100 people have been barred from working because of old convictions. And the Chief Human Resources Officer of that department has even publicly admitted that these restrictions exclude people “who can provide valuable services” and that it contributes to a shortage of counselors in the state.

But Rudy has new hope that he could return to work one day. Recently he launched a federal lawsuit with the Institute for Justice maintaining that Virginia’s restrictions violate his constitutional rights. The barrier-crime ban doesn’t make sense. It includes crimes like reckless boat driving and hazing. Surely these are serious crimes that warrant prosecution, but they have nothing to do with whether someone is qualified to be a substance abuse counselor years or even decades later.

In recent years, a number of states have eased licensing barriers for people with criminal records. After IJ sued on behalf of Pennsylvania cosmetologists, the legislature eliminated requirements that some license applicants had to prove they were “good.” California also provided a pathway for at least some people who served in its prison firefighters program to apply for EMT certifications. However, an IJ lawsuit on behalf of several would-be firefighters continues.

Most Americans believe in second chances, but what Rudy and others discover is that there are permanent punishments written into law. It’s time for courts to knock down unconstitutional restrictions and for legislatures to pass “fresh start” bills that would let boards consider individual circumstances. Rudy has changed and he has the power to help others do the same. Virginia’s irrational law shouldn’t stop him.


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