‘Ban the Box’ Movement Scores Win in America’s Most Incarcerated State

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge Shuterstock

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In Louisiana, public universities will be prohibited from asking about criminal history on admission applications.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards approved legislation last week that will, beginning Aug. 1, prohibit the state’s public universities from asking applicants about their criminal backgrounds.

The Pelican State law is the first in the nation to target college admission applications for the kind of change the “Ban the Box” movement has brought to hiring practices around the country.

“In a place where a problem is most intense, I think it’s easier to see the problem and to talk about it,” Bruce Reilly, deputy director at VOTE, a New Orleans-based criminal justice reform organization that lead efforts in support of the new law, told Route Fifty in an interview.

Some estimates have put the number of people on Louisiana’s criminal records database as high as 2 million. The total state population is 4.7 million. VOTE calls Louisiana the “most incarcerated state in the nation” and in recent years, the state has been recognized as the “world’s prison capital” based on its per capita incarceration rate.

The Ban the Box movement has sought to remove criminal background questions from mostly employment and housing applications and postpone background checks until later in the job-hiring process. The aim is to lift barriers that prevent people with criminal histories from opening new chapters in their lives.

The movement continues to gain steam. President Obama approved a Ban the Box rule on federal government employment applications in 2015 and now some 28 states and 150 cities and counties in the country have barred first-round job applications from including questions about criminal histories.     

At the end of May, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed legislation similar to the bill signed into law by Louisiana’s governor. Hogan said he felt banning the box at colleges might put student safety at risk.

The Louisiana proposal was crafted to address those kind of concerns. University administrators can ask about convictions for stalking, sexual battery, and rape, and after admission is granted, they can ask students about criminal convictions for the purpose of making decisions about housing placement and financial aid.

Reilly said the public universities proposal fell on fertile ground this year at the legislature in Baton Rouge, partly because it came as the state was rolling out results of the governor’s year-long criminal justice reform task force. The task force drafted a series of recommendations designed to reduce the state prison population by 16 percent and save taxpayers some $300 million over the next decade.   

Even though Louisiana’s Ban the Box legislation for state universities was not part of the task force-based package, it benefitted from the larger discussion on criminal justice reform.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Vincent Pierre, a Democrat from Lafayette, stumbled in a first committee hearing that cut testimony short, leading Pierre to pull the bill back and rework it. The hearing that followed included testimony from former convicts.

“Once they heard people’s stories, you could see the members of the committee shift,” said Reilly. “[Lawmakers] always think, ‘How can we help get these people jobs?’ but never ‘How can we get these people to college?’ That’s a view that gets beyond stereotypes . . . There are about a million people in Louisiana with criminal records—men, women, children, white people, black people. You can’t see college as finishing school for white people anymore. It’s basic job training now.”

Supporters see the bill as key to helping push down recidivism rates.

“It costs a billion dollars a year to lock people up. Lawmakers know it’s a problem they can’t ignore,” Reilly said. “They didn’t make the problem. They inherited it. But they can change it.”

Louisiana last year passed a Ban the Box law on public housing applications.

Georgia was the first state in the Deep South to ban the box after Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order removing criminal history questions from state employment applications.

Some opponents of ban the box laws cite research that has found employers who can’t access criminal background information up front in the hiring process revert to ethnic stereotyping and ultimately hire fewer black and Hispanic men.  

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

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