The House Education Committee voted 13-1 to send Rep. Vincent Pierre's HB122 to the full House for consideration on Wednesday, one week after questions about the bill nearly sent scuttled it.
The bill would prohibit public colleges and universities in Louisiana from asking about a person's criminal history on initial applications for admission. The bill had faltered a week ago when questions raised by LSU's medical schools had filtered to the committee about what would amount to considering students who could not gain a license to practice even if they were to gain the education.
Pierre tells The Independent that he and his allies on the bill went to work. Pierre amended the bill on Wednesday to carve out an exemption for the LSU Health Sciences Centers for its graduate health professional programs.
That move — combined with personal testimony from witnesses who had encountered the barriers to education raised by their criminal history — seemed to carry the day with the committee.
"We were down in the dumps last week, but exempting the medical schools removed a hurdle," Pierre, speaking just after the committee vote, explains. "Ultimately, I believe we have an obligation to try to provide an education for everyone."
He says there are more than 70,000 people in Louisiana under court-ordered community supervision trying to make a fresh start on life after having served their sentences. He says another 40,000 are awaiting release in the near future.
"Like the ban the box rule we passed last year for state jobs, what removing the box for higher education does is provides the individual the opportunity to be viewed as a unique person, not categorized as a criminal," Pierre argues. "Like one of the witnesses says, what this bill will do if it becomes law is open pathways to education. Once a person has that education, other opportunities can open for them. But, they need the education."
Pierre notes that the state Civil Service Commission has recently decided to extend the ban the box rule for at least another year.
Sen. Wesley Bishop of New Orleans, a former member of the House, told the committee he has students in a criminal justice class he teaches at Southern University in New Orleans. Some students talk to him privately about how they want to work in the legal field but would not be able to get a law license because of their histories. Bishop says he has been able to point students in directions where they can put their education to work in their field of choice in alternative ways.
The committee vote on Pierre's bill was 13-1 with only Jefferson Parish Rep. Polly Thomas voting against the bill. Rep. Julie Emerson, a Carencro Republican, voted in favor of the bill. Committee chair Rep. Nancy Landry of Lafayette did not preside over the debate on the bill. Committee chairs only vote to break ties in committee votes.
With only three weeks remaining in the session, Rep. Pierre says he will talk with Speaker Taylor Barras to try to bring the bill up for consideration on Monday of next week. The session must end by 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 8. The Memorial Day holiday will remove one day of work from the calendar.