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"Ban the box" produces no benefits, only costs

If one newly-elected member of the Louisiana Legislature has her way, Baton Rouge and perhaps all of Louisiana would emulate bad policy followed by New Orleans.

Current East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Councilor Denise Marcelle, fresh off an election win that will send her to the state House of Representatives next year, as a swan song has proposed that the consolidated government adopt a “ban the box” ordinance for its hiring. This means that its employment applications no longer would contain a request for a prospective employee to indicate whether he had committed felonies and to provide information about those.

In 2014, the Legislature sidelined numerous bills to try to impose this for differing kinds of hiring in the state. New Orleans, which leads local governments in Louisiana in all things stupid, adopted this for its city hiring a couple of years ago. State regulations strongly suggest but do not outright prohibit state agency hiring of felons, but does not address those with misdemeanor-only records.

Wiser heads in the Legislature prevailed on this issue when they understood the costs involved, particularly to small business. While larger interests might have the resources and inclination to do background checks on every applicant, smaller firms do not. Proponents of the measure claim this artificially makes it more difficult for those with records to get jobs and that can result in higher transfer payments from taxpayers to these unemployed, if not present a temptation to commit more crime and probably end up back in prison by the reluctance to hire them.

While some employers in the private sector automatically may dismiss the idea of hiring ex-convicts, civil service regulations in government typically do not allow for automatic exclusion on that basis. Louisiana already is one of 14 states that limits discretion of government hiring in using past criminal behavior information to deny applicants. While an applicant could lie about a past criminal record, that would serve as grounds for dismissal if later found out and governments have the option of performing background checks.

Yet if a government commits to a background check and follows the standard that automatic disqualification cannot result from admission of a crime, removal of the question becomes pointless. Why not have it out there if confirmation follows? In fact, its presence can provide an additional piece of highly relevant evidence to the employment decision: whether the government can trust this person as an employee. If an applicant fails to jot down a conviction and the check subsequently finds one that, all things equal, would not prohibit them necessarily from getting hired, without that question hiring agencies miss an opportunity to discover the honesty of someone who would perform business on behalf of the public, where assumably that kind of mendacious employee puts at risk public assets, service, and even safety.

And if a government chooses not to conduct checks on every single potential hire – which in Baton Rouge’s case entails hundreds, perhaps thousands annually at costs approaching $100 each – then abjuring the asking of this question also invites problems. An applicant could leave out that information, but knowing that drawing a check that would uncover the fib and cost a shot at the job whereas if honest up front it still could be landed will encourage fewer of them to take the risk. By leaving to chance employing someone with a record without at least inquiring about that possibility, a government could bring on board a problematic employee that could cause unknown damage – and perhaps open up that government to negligence suits.

Even if a background check without the question occurs, not having this inquiry still costs the government money. If the check comes up positive on past crime where its nature eliminates that person from further consideration, this additional processing effort beyond asking the question in many instances wastes time and resources to taxpayers’ detriment.

Asking the question provides a cost-free additional tool for governments to improve the quality of their workforces. In no way does it reduce hiring of ex-convicts who appear to present good risks as public servants. Adopting the type of measure Marcelle advocates exacts costs while producing no benefits.

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