House votes to 'ban the box' for some state jobs

Posted April 11, 2017 8:16 p.m. EDT
Updated April 11, 2017 10:38 p.m. EDT

— A bill that would help people with criminal records get jobs in state government passed the House Tuesday afternoon with surprising levels of bipartisan support.

House Bill 409 would direct most state agencies to "ban the box" on job applications – that is, to move a question about criminal history from the initial stages of a job application to later in the interview process, when an applicant would be able to explain his or her criminal record and why it should or should not matter to consideration for state employment.

Legislative Democrats have filed "Ban the Box" bills most every session since 2011, but they've never gained much traction with the Republican leadership. However, House Bill 409 sailed through the House with a 98-14 vote, including all Democrats and the majority of Republicans as well.

The proposal would not apply to jobs with direct interaction with children or the elderly, law enforcement or public safety jobs or any other positions that by law require a criminal history inquiry as a preliminary qualification.

Bill sponsor Rep. Rena Turner, R-Iredell, said the bill also directs state recruitment officers to consider the gravity of the crime, the amount of time passed since it happened, any rehabilitation work and whether the crime committed had anything to do with the job the person is seeking.

Turner is a longtime clerk of court in Iredell County. She said her experience led her to support the measure, which she believes will reduce criminal recidivism.

"Occasionally, there’s somebody who really understands that they messed up," Turner said. "Maybe it’s been 20 years ago. Maybe it’s been 30 years ago.

"If we keep stuffing them down and never taking their applications," she asked, "how can we expect them to do any better?

"I think they need a chance," she said.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said he supports the concept but is concerned about the potential effects on state hiring.

"There’s so much, all throughout state government, very sensitive information," Dollar argued, "computer systems different people in different areas can get access to.

"I also think it’s going to be very cumbersome on a hiring process in state government that is quite cumbersome already," he added.

But other GOP members spoke in favor of the idea, including Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, who said the bill would give applicants with criminal histories the chance to explain that history to the interviewer in person.

"You sometimes look for reasons for ways to get that pile of resumes down, and anything that’s on it that’s out of the norm, you trash that resume. The problem is, you lose some good folks," Speciale said. "There are sometimes extenuating or mitigating circumstances."

Unlike other "Ban the Box" bills, House Bill 409 would apply only to state government jobs, not the private sector.

"It’s hard for us to ask the private industry to do something the state’s not willing to do," said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland.

The bill now moves to the state Senate.