May 26, 2017 12:37 AM

HB688 cleared the House on Thursday somehow escaping Republican threats to kill all Justice Reinvestment task force bills in a dispute with Democrats

Photo by Robin May

Rep. Vincent Pierre's HB688 won House approval on Thursday, somehow escaping Republican threats to kill all Justice Reinvestment legislation in retaliation against Democrats over their earlier refusal to fund the state's construction bill.

"We worked hard on this bill to build consensus," Pierre told The Independent on Friday morning. "The testimony in committee moved a lot of people. This wasn't a partisan issue and I think that showed."

Pierre's bill would prohibit state colleges and universities about asking applicants about any criminal history on their initial application forms. The bill is similar in form and intent to the "ban the box" legislation enacted last year that directed the state civil service board to remove questions regarding criminal history from its initial job application forms.

Pierre says the positive results of the change in the civil service application process helped pave the way for success of his higher education bill.

It was not a smooth process.

HB688 was originally HB122. The original bill got a chilly reception when the House Education Committee chaired by Rep. Nancy Landry of Lafayette considered it on May 10. Word filtered to committee members that LSU's Health Science Centers, which provide graduate medical education, had questions about the bill. The questions centered on whether it made sense to admit people into graduate medical training fields where they would not be eligible to be licensed even if they successfully completed their studies.

Pierre pulled the bill on that day before a vote was taken. He went back to LSU, rewrote the bill exempting the GME programs from the provisions of the bill and brought it back before the Education Committee the following week as HB688.

After an hour of moving testimony from people who had criminal records but had gained access to educational opportunities that enabled them to turn their lives around, the committee approved the bill with only one dissenting vote.

Pierre says the fact that his bill was not officially part of the Justice Reinvestment task force package might have enabled it to escape the threatened Republican attack on the criminal reform bills.

"Even though this bill was not officially part of the Justice Reform package, every hearing and meeting I attended, I kept hearing that education was the key to successful reentry once a person had served their sentence," Pierre explains. "We worked this message hard with our colleagues and it appears it paid off."

The bill won House approval in a 95-0 vote on Thursday and now heads to the Senate. It must first be read for three days before the Senate Education Committee will consider it, possibly next week. If the Senate does not amend the bill, it could be on its way to Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk for signature early in the final week of the session. If the Senate does make changes, the bill will have to go back to the House for concurrence.

Pierre says he will ask Sens. Wesley Bishop and Gerald Boudreaux for their help with the bill on the Senate side. Sen. Bishop testified in the House Education Committee in support of the bill. Sen. Boudreaux is a member of the Senate Education Committee who, like Pierre, represents Lafayette.

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