By Rebekah Allen
Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed into law a bill that intends to give ex-convicts a greater chance at re-entering the workforce.
Dubbed "Ban the Box," the legislation prevents state employers from asking about past criminal history on a job application. But it does not prevent an employer from asking about it during an interview or doing a criminal background check, which is required for certain positions.
Advocates of the program say the measure, which is being implemented in cities and states across the nation, is merely an attempt to get a foot in the door, so ex-convicts can explain the circumstances of their previous arrest in person while being judged initially on their qualifications.
"They can get integrated back into society with a better opportunity to get a job and become productive members of society," Edwards said before signing the bill into law. "They'll be tax payers, if you will, rather than tax consumers because we know that people who cannot be employed typically remain dependent on state services."
The mandate only affects state employers, and not private businesses.
But the measure was opposed by some business lobbyists fearful this measure could potentially lead to broader implementation of the regulation.
Rep. Julie Emerson, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said she would not support a government mandate that private businesses adhere to the policy, but she hopes the state sets an example to other employers.
"But of course we'd love to see them implement it on their own," she said of private businesses. "There's absolutely no mandate but we encourage them to look into it."
Holly Harris, an advocate of the measure with the U.S. Justice Action Network, noted that the backers of the bill made for "strange political bedfellows."
While it was sponsored by Baton Rouge State. Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Democrat, and many other Democrats who have pushed for criminal justice reform, it also had key support from the Louisiana Family Forum, a power conservative organization in the state.
It was also co-sponsored by State Rep. Julie Emerson, a Republican from Carencro.
Harris said the Family Forum's support was absolutely crucial to getting Republican support in the House, where it passed by a single vote.
"Had those conservative voices not been in the conversation, we wouldn't be here today," Harris said. "But these programs save money, they put people back to work and they strengthen families. All of those are conservative principles and to be able to have (Family Forum President) Gene Mills standing next to the governor on this, that provides the narrative that anyone should be able to vote for this."
Mills said his organization has a number of church members who are volunteers in the prison system.
"They work with men and women who come from all walks of life and one thing we find in common is that the grace of God can occur anywhere and it often occurs in our penal system," Mills said. "You've got to believe in second chances and you got to prepare people for those second chances. It's not a coincidence, and it can be done very intentionally."
To date, 23 states have adopted similar policies for governmental jobs, and seven of those states have extended the legislation to apply to private employers.
Just last year, East Baton Rouge Parish implemented the policy, a measure led by Marcelle when she sat on the Metro Council. The City of New Orleans put the policy in place in 2013.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu applauded the state law on Wednesday, noting that the City of New Orleans hired 80 people with past criminal records after the policy was put in place.
(c)2016 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.