- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - State representatives cheered as a bid to block state employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal histories before interviews cleared the Louisiana House.

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said her “ban the box” proposal is a bipartisan push aimed at employing former inmates, reducing recidivism and reforming the state’s criminal justice system. The proposal applies to the state’s politically appointed “unclassified” employees and not rank-and-file “classified” state workers subject to Louisiana’s civil service system.

The House voted 53-39 for the proposal, the minimum support needed for passage. The measure moves next to the Senate.

The proposal has gained traction among a number of interest groups across the political spectrum, including the Pelican Institute, ACLU of Louisiana and the Louisiana Family Forum. More than 20 states have adopted the hiring practice, and the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan organization working to reform the criminal justice system, points to Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio as areas with similar laws.

Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, said she co-authored the bill with Marcelle to fight the stigma created by the box on job applications. She stressed the proposal, only affected state workers and was “in no way trying to put any mandates on private business,” which lawmakers previously expressed as a concern.

“We just want to get them to the interview process,” Emerson said.

Similar hiring practices may eventually extend to state classified employees if Marcelle’s proposal reaches final passage.

Byron P. Decoteau, Louisiana civil service director, said during a hearing on the bill that if it becomes law, civil services would most likely develop and vote on similar guidelines for hiring classified employees. As of April 15, the state employed 39,913 classified employees and 31,759 unclassified.

Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, questioned whether knowing less about applicants’ criminal backgrounds would help them, despite their employment classification. Instead, he said, the measure may expose applicants and employers to risks by allowing each to forego duties to ask important hiring questions.

“By not disclosing (former crimes) in the beginning, I don’t know if that gets you anything further,” he said.

But supporters argued against Connick’s point, saying nothing in the proposal would remove an employer’s ability to ask about criminal histories during job interviews or prevent them from seeking background checks. The proposal also would not apply to positions in law enforcement, corrections or other areas that legally require criminal background checks.

Ultimately, Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said Louisiana is “at a point of no return,” and, while the bill may not be perfect, he asked lawmakers to think in “commonsense terms.” He argued communities will be made safer by helping former convicts establish gainful employment instead of prompting them to “go right back to where they came from.”

Marcelle agreed, saying the proposal will help establish “equal footing” by having employers vet applicants based on applicable skills and interview conversations, instead of a checkmark.

“This by no way means they would get the job,” Marcelle said.

___

House Bill 266: www.legis.la.gov

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