BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill that would remove a question about criminal records on job applications for state employees advanced favorably out of House committee with a vote of 9-1.
HB 266, better known as "Ban the Box" legislation, is sponsored by Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge. The bill seeks to remove the question about prior criminal record on the job applications for unclassified state positions. That includes salary workers, such as those with clerical or maintenance jobs.
Marcelle, who pushed for the passage of a "Ban the Box" rule in East Baton Rouge Parish when she was on the Metro Council, said that the question creates an immediate barrier for those with criminal records by possibly creating a bias in those reviewing the applications.
"They set it over in a stack, never looked at the qualifications, never got to talk to that individual to see what happened to them," Marcelle told the committee.
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has sponsored similar legislation in the past and joined Marcelle at the witness stand.
"It's making sure that the opportunity is there for individuals to at least get an interview. It's a second chance at life for these individuals," Smith said.
That includes Mark Walters, who was arrested six times and sent to prison on charges ranging from dealing drugs to assaulting a police officer. After getting out of prison, he said he spent more than a year sending in job applications with no luck. He attributed his lack of success, in part, to the criminal background question on applications.
"I did my time. And secretly what we're doing, us former incarcerated people, are serving life sentences. So all we're asking is for a little bit of leeway," said Walters, referring to removing the box.
Supporters of the bill said that by helping former convicted criminals get jobs, it would help reduce the recidivism rate.
"You got to eat, and you will eat some kind of way. So I'd rather give a person an opportunity to go to an office and work versus coming through my window," said Rep. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans.
Still, some lawmakers voiced concern that this public sector rule could lead to more legislation down the road focused on independent businesses.
"It could lead to government creep, and more laws coming out later. The private sector should be concerned about this bill," said Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria.
"I don't need government to tell me when and how to be fair to people," said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.
Schroder expressed concern about a bill sponsored by Smith that would apply the ban the box rule to certain state contract workers. Smith said she has not decided yet whether she will run that bill.
Opponents also expressed concerns about security risks, to which Marcelle said that under her bill, employers would still be able to ask about an applicant's criminal background during interviews. That information could be taken into consideration when offering employment. They could also offer jobs contingent on a background check.
Also, under the bill, the box would remain on applications for certain positions, including those for police officers, firefighters, and teachers. Those positions also already require a background check.
HB 266 now heads to the full House for consideration.