Questions such as “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” and “Have you ever gone to jail?” are standard on many job applications. But there’s a move afoot to change that for people seeking jobs in local government in East Baton Rouge Parish.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle wants to remove the questions about a prospective employee’s conviction history for people applying to work for the city-parish. Marcelle’s goal is part of a larger, national movement to “ban the box” on job applications about criminal histories that often determine if applicants end up in the “yes” or “no” pile.
Marcelle is pushing for the Metro Council to vote in November on whether job applicants should have to disclose their conviction history — as is the current practice — when applying to work for the city. The policy is already in place in New Orleans and a number of big cities across the United States, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
The policy has the potential to have a significant impact in giving ex-offenders a better shot at clearing an early hurdle to getting a job. The National Employment Law Project estimated in 2014 that 1 in 4 adults in America has a criminal record.
The “ban the box” practice in Baton Rouge would still keep some checks and balances in place for hiring ex-offenders.
Managers who make hiring decisions could still run background checks and ask applicants during their interviews about criminal pasts. But “banning the box” seeks to even the playing field for applicants during the first step of hiring when their applications are given a quick, initial glance, Marcelle said.
She said she was inspired in part by victims of domestic violence, who are sometimes convicted of crimes while defending themselves. She also said helping ex-offenders find jobs might cut down on recidivism.
“It’s hard for people to be able to obtain jobs when they have these felonies on their records,” she said. “We want people to be able to get back into society and say, ‘How do we help them?’ ”
Job applications to work for the city-parish currently ask prospective employees, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony since your 18th birthday?” If so, the application requests the name of the offense, the court name and location and the date of conviction.
Baton Rouge’s job applications already have a caveat that says, “Conviction is not an automatic bar to employment. Each case is considered on its individual merits.”
William Daniel, Baton Rouge’s chief administrative officer, said Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration supports removing the question about convictions from applications. But he said the city would still do background checks on job applicants.
Daniel said the type of crimes people are convicted of could make a difference in whether they are hired. For example, he said, someone driving a tractor on the interstate might need to meet a lower threshold than someone who’s being hired to check sewers in backyards.
“It might be hard to be objective if you know someone has committed a crime when you’re deciding to hire someone,” Daniel said. “So the idea that we ‘ban the box’ is to make everyone equal on the résumé.”
East Baton Rouge Parish employs about 5,000 people.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration trumpeted the “ban the box” policy in 2013, saying the initiative was necessary to help rebuild New Orleans. It went through a slightly different process in New Orleans, as the Civil Service Commission approved it — rather than the City Council — in December of that year.
“Past mistakes should not be a permanent barrier for people who want to earn an honest living and contribute positively to our city,” Landrieu said at the time in a news release.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans is considering taking the initiative a step further. A policy proposed in 2013 would have stopped officials from blocking applicants from public housing based only on criminal background checks. But the policy never was fully implemented, and the Housing Authority is now holding workshops and a criminal background focus group to determine how to move forward.
Alfred Marshall, a community organizer with the New Orleans group Stand With Dignity, knows firsthand the barriers that ex-offenders face when they try to assimilate back into daily life. Marshall said he was convicted in the mid-1980s for simple burglary in New Orleans and was sentenced to three years at the B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center, formerly known as the Washington Correctional Institute.
When he returned home to New Orleans, he relied on his family to help him for a few years until he could find a job. Marshall said the first job he was able to work was as a dishwasher at Tulane Medical Center, and he’s worked a variety of other jobs over time until becoming a community organizer.
“As an organizer now, I see that same fear that I had — a lot of young, black men had that,” Marshall said. “People deserve a second chance at life. I made a mistake, and I think I paid for my mistake, and I should have a chance to really grow back into society.”
Marshall and others have traveled across the south, trying to help spread “ban the box” to other communities. He also said he’s part of a petition in the works to “ban the box” at a national level, as well.
Colette Tippy, the lead organizer at Stand with Dignity at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said she believes “ban the box” in New Orleans has been successful. But a lack of reporting requirements in New Orleans makes it difficult to know for sure how well it has worked and how many people have been hired, she said.
In Baton Rouge, Marcelle was recently elected to the Louisiana Legislature, and she will vacate her Metro Council seat in January to serve there. She said removing criminal histories from job applications is one of the final changes to city government that she wants to push through while she is still on the Metro Council.
Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.