'Ban the Box' bill to ease job searches for felons advances to full Louisiana Senate _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, right, and Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, prepare on April 26, to present legislation to the Louisiana House that would give ex-convicts a better chance at landing a job interview with the state.

House-passed legislation that would ease job searches for convicted felons is within a step of finishing its legislative journey.

It’s called “ban the box” and is part of a national movement to remove the check off on job applications that ask if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. Baton Rouge Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, who is lead sponsor of House Bill 266, said that too often employers automatically set aside those job applications with that box checked off and never look at the qualifications.

Her measure “gives them an opportunity to get to the interviewing process,” Marcelle said, adding that it would allow applicants to explain their past and how they have changed as well as training they’ve received and other qualifications.

The legislation doesn’t prohibit the interviewer from asking the question. Her measure applies only to new state government hires of “unclassified” employees, who can be fired at will.

The Louisiana Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced the bill to the full Senate on Wednesday. If a majority of senators also approve the legislation, without making any changes, the measure would go to the governor for his signature.

Rep. Julie Emerson, of Carencro and a cosponsor of HB266, said the state prison system provides training for inmates in the hopes that when their sentence is completed, they can find work and become productive members of society. However, the statistics show how difficult it is for recently released convicts to land a job, in large part because they never get past the application stage after disclosing their conviction.

“They never are able to get to the point where they can escape that stigma,” Emerson said.

Just as Marcelle, a Democrat representing a mostly inner city district, and Emerson, a Republican from a largely suburban district, make an odd couple, support for the legislation includes groups not normally on the same side. For instance, Louisiana Family Forum, which promotes conservative Christian family values, and Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, both back the measure.

But not everyone approves of the idea.

Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said her members are concerned that the legislation would in the future be expanded to cover private businesses too.

Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, worried that someone convicted of abusing children might be unwittingly hired to work with children.

But Democratic New Orleans Sen. JP Morrell said state law already requires criminal background checks for everyone applying to work near children.

Republican Sen. Mike Walsworth, of West Monroe, wanted to know how many unclassified employees were presently employed in the state, then scolded Emerson for not knowing. “We ought to have that kind of basic information,” Walsworth said.

“Why does it matter?” asked Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans and chairwoman of the committee. The legislation, if approved, would impact new applicants for unclassified state jobs.

There are about 31,000 employees “unclassified” because their jobs aren’t protected by the Louisiana Department of State Civil Service. Emerson said the legislation was worded the way it is because Civil Service has its own rules.

Voting for removing questions about convictions from some state employment applications (4): Sens. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Troy Carter, D-New Orleans; JP Morrell, D-New Orleans; and Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport.

Voting against HB266 (2); Sens. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro; and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the/advocate.com/ politicsblog/.