State government hiring policy could be more friendly toward ex-convicts under a new bill proposed in the Louisiana Legislature that would ban questions on job applications that ask if the person applying has a criminal record.

Baton Rouge state Reps. C. Denise Marcelle and Patricia Smith, both Democrats, are sponsoring House Bill 266, which would only apply to unclassified employees seeking a state job, with the exception of law enforcement.

The motivation behind the bill, Marcelle and Smith said, is that many ex-convicts who have served their time have difficulty getting a foot in the door with a new employer if their application has a check mark next to the box that indicates a criminal record. An employer can still ask about criminal history during an interview and conduct criminal background checks.

“The idea is to have a face-to-face conversation to discuss criminal backgrounds,” Smith told the House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs.

The effort is part of a nationwide campaign called “Ban the Box,” which refers to the check box that appears on many applications, being pushed by groups advocating for ex-offenders.

The measure passed out of committee after lengthy debate and concerns raised by a few lawmakers. Its second hurdle will be the full House.

Some legislators, like Baton Rouge state Rep. Barry Ivey, a Republican, said they had some concerns about violent criminals slipping through the cracks, particularly when applying for jobs that don’t require a criminal background check.

Others wondered whether this would open the door for the mandate to expand into the private sector.

Smith told the committee she has separate legislation that would extend the practice to private companies that contract with the state, but she hadn’t decided whether to pursue it.

“Once you crack the door, the door is open,” said State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.

The bill also is opposed by the state’s branch of the National Federation of Independent Business, which called it a “slippery slope.”

“The people pushing this bill want to ban the box when it comes to the private sector, as well. That’s a bad idea, especially when it comes to small businesses,” said Dawn Starns, state director for NFIB in a statement. “Small businesses can’t afford to leave a position open while interviewing a candidate whose background would ultimately disqualify them. You’re not going to hire someone who’s been convicted of embezzlement to handle money, and you’re not going to hire someone with a bad driving record to drive your delivery truck.”

But the practice is becoming more and more commonplace among governmental employers across the nation.

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.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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