INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb is poised to give rehabilitated criminals the opportunity to apply for state jobs without disclosing prior illegal acts, even as he prohibits local governments from requiring businesses to similarly "ban the box."
The Republican chief executive has signed into law Senate Enrolled Act 312, which bars localities from adopting ordinances that prevent companies from asking about arrest and criminal history information on employment applications, typically in a box separate from the rest of the form.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, effectively scuttles the 2014 "ban the box" ordinance in place in Indianapolis that's similar to statutes enacted in 24 other states, including Illinois, and 150 municipalities across the country.
At the same time, the first-year governor vowed to issue an executive order in coming weeks directing the state personnel department not to ask about criminal history in the early part of its hiring process.
"The executive branch of the state of Indiana will be banning the box for future state employment," Holcomb said.
It's not clear exactly how many Hoosiers with a criminal past will be helped by the governor's forthcoming order, since hiring for numerous state jobs is contingent on a background check that shows no criminal convictions.
But state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, and other lawmakers agreed that potential employees should at least have an opportunity to show they are the best candidate before an employer considers his or her criminal record.
"All applicants deserve the chance to be judged based on their qualifications, not their past convictions," Melton said.
Localities not allowed to prohibit employers from asking
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said barring localities from prohibiting employers asking about prior crimes is "business as usual for the General Assembly.
"Someone doesn't like a local ordinance, so they come up here and they get us to kind of be the city council of the whole and basically wipe out the local ordinance," Pierce said.
In recent years, the Republican-controlled Legislature also has blocked local governments from requiring businesses to pay a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 per hour, provide employees their work schedules in advance, and limit the use of plastic and other non-biodegradable food packaging.
The influential Indiana Chamber of Commerce announced in November that banning "ban the box" ordinances was among its top priorities for the 2017 legislative session.
Nevertheless, Pierce and many other Democrats voted in favor of the proposal, because it also limits the civil liability of employers who take a chance on hiring a former criminal by not allowing evidence of the employee's past to be used in a lawsuit unless it directly relates to the facts of the case.
Pierce said he isn't entirely convinced that will result in many ex-cons getting hired, but he noted that advocates for post-prison employment, including the author of Indianapolis' "ban the box" ordinance, endorsed the proposal due to that provision.
The legislation passed the House, 79-12, and was approved by the Senate, 38-10.
Holcomb said prior to signing the measure into law that his support was based on the local government pre-emption language.
"I don't believe that I have the authority, or should have the authority, to tell other employers their hiring practices at those initial stages," Holcomb said.