By Rick Green

Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order Wednesday requiring state agencies to eliminate questions about felony convictions from employment applications.

"Employment after a felony conviction is always a challenge, but the ability to gain employment is a critical and necessary component in reducing recidivism and for those individuals to lead productive and successful lives," the governor said.

"Thus, we should remove unnecessary barriers to employment opportunities for Oklahomans with felony convictions."

"State hiring policies should allow full and fair consideration of all applicants."

Removing the section of employment applications asking about felony convictions is commonly referred to as "banning the box," for the box an applicant must check if he or she has such a conviction.

Oklahoma joins 19 states and more than 100 cities and counties with similar policies.

Former House Speaker Kris Steele, a leading advocate for criminal justice reform, praised the governor's order.

"The governor's action to remove the 'convicted felony' question from applications for state jobs sends a powerful message that Oklahoma believes in second chances, is intent on utilizing all the talent within our workforce, and it affords tremendous hope to those in the process of rebuilding their lives," he said.

"Today's executive order does not guarantee employment to anyone convicted of a crime, rather it allows such an individual the opportunity for an interview if he/she is qualified for the position. Having a chance to personally communicate the details surrounding a troubled past and the lessons learned will lead to informed, productive employment decisions," Steele said.

The Washington-based U.S. Justice Action Network said the governor's order should lead to expanded employment opportunities.

"Individuals with records too often struggle to find good jobs to support their families, which is why we commend Gov. Fallin's effort today to provide thousands of Oklahoma residents a second chance at leading a crime-free life," said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.

One in 12 Oklahomans is a convicted felon, with more than 55,000 people currently in prison or under supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, most for nonviolent offenses.

The order does not prevent prospective employees from being asked about felony convictions during the interview process. It also doesn't prevent criminal background checks.

It also does not affect applications involving government positions in which a criminal history would be an immediate disqualification.

(c)2016 The Oklahoman