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College after prison? New Louisiana law makes it easier.

Louisiana is the first state to prohibit public universities from asking applicants about their criminal histories, the latest development in a growing movement to "ban the box" on college applications. 

Photo provided by Rep. Vincent Pierre
Gov. John Bel Edwards signs Bill 688 into law. Directly behind him stand (l. to r.): Annie Freitas (in green), Syrita Steib-Martin, co-author Rep. Edward James, and primary sponsor Rep. Vincent Pierre.

After nine years in prison, Syrita Steib-Martin was ready for college. 

With 30 transfer credits and a 3.8 GPA from taking classes while incarcerated, the Louisiana native filled out an application to attend the University of New Orleans. When she reached the box asking whether she had a criminal record, Ms. Steib-Martin – who at age 19 was arrested for stealing from a car dealership – answered that she did. Her admission to the school was denied. 

Two years later, she tried again, this time leaving the box unchecked. The result: She was accepted. Steib-Martin, now a licensed medical technologist, isn't sure what changed, but believes it was that unchecked box that made all the difference. 

"Had I not lied on my application," she says, "I would not be in the position I am in: saving lives, and a taxpaying member of society." 

Formerly incarcerated Louisianans such as Steib-Martin will no longer have to choose between lying and risking rejection. Last month, Louisiana became the first state to prohibit public colleges from asking applicants about their criminal history, with some exceptions. House Bill 688, drafted with help from Steib-Martin, passed 90-1 with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards on June 16.

The bill's near-unanimous passage, in the state with the highest incarceration rate, may be attributed in part to some Louisiana-specific factors. But, observers say, it's also indicative of a growing recognition across the United States that improving access to higher education for formerly incarcerated people can benefit not only ex-offenders, but society at large.  

"This is an incredibly important development that deserves recognition," says Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "When you get that kind of agreement on something, it indicates that people are thinking about this in a smarter kind of way." 

'The biggest hurdle'

Roughly two-thirds of US colleges collect criminal justice information, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), although not all consider it in the admissions process. In a separate study published in the Journal of School Violence, 35 percent of schools surveyed reported having denied admission to at least one applicant based on their criminal history in a recent semester. 

Supporters of "banning the box" cite access to higher education as a key to reducing recidivism rates. When formerly incarcerated people are able to earn a degree, the logic goes, they're more likely to find work and less likely to slip back into patterns of illegal behavior. Questions about criminal convictions also disproportionately affect high-school students of color, many researchers argue, as studies show that African-American students are punished more often and more harshly than their white peers. 

Removing questions about criminal history doesn't just increase an ex-offender's chances of being admitted, data suggests. It also makes it more likely that they'll apply in the first place. Another study from CCA found that two out of three applicants who check the box disclosing a felony conviction don't complete the application.

"Even just encouraging people to apply is the biggest hurdle," says Steib-Martin, who also serves as executive director of Operation Restoration, an initiative to help formerly incarcerated women access educational and employment opportunities. 

In 2016, then-US Secretary of Education John B. King issued a letter and guidance to American schools, urging them to remove barriers to higher education for people with criminal histories. In the letter, he asked universities to rethink the practice of collecting criminal justice information. A number of private colleges and public university systems in states including New York and California have already done so. 

Still, in the larger push to ban the box from college applications, hurdles remain. One is the Common App – used to submit more than 4 million college applications annually – which still asks about criminal histories, says Marsha Weissman, senior policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives. In Louisiana, public schools accepting the Common App will be prohibited from using such information provided to them in the admissions process.

Safety concerns often a barrier

While it's the first to implement a statewide ban, Louisiana is not the only state to consider one. In May, similar legislation was vetoed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

In a letter explaining his decision, Governor Hogan cited the safety of other students as a primary concern, echoing a common worry among critics. 

"When families send their children to college, they know they will be exposed to exciting new opportunities and challenges, but also to new dangers," the governor wrote. "In this, parents have an expectation that the school to which they entrust their child will do anything possible to keep its students safe."

To alleviate safety concerns, the Louisiana law contains exceptions for certain crimes. Those who have been convicted of stalking, rape, or sexual battery must report so on their application. The exceptions, added in later drafts of the bill, resulted from dialogue with administrators at Louisiana State University (LSU) and other schools.

LSU had previously inquired about applicants' criminal history, but took into account details – such as the nature of the crime and the amount of time that had passed – before making final admissions decisions, according to Ernie Ballard, a spokesman for the school.

The university considered sex-related crimes to be "particularly problematic," notes Mr. Ballard in an email, "especially as it related to dormitories."

Under the new law, schools can inquire about criminal history after a student is admitted, and may use the information in decisions about campus housing or extracurricular activities.

But those who study reentry patterns also point out that no direct link has been found between having a criminal record and posing a risk to campus safety.

This lack of a proven connection, coupled with research showing that higher education reduces the chances that a formerly incarcerated person will offend again, leads advocates to suggest that banning the box improves public safety, rather than threatening it.

"It's not just doing right by people who have paid their debt to society," Dr. Weissman says. "It's actually doing right by the rest of us." 

Reform all can 'get on board' with 

The passage of Bill 688 in Louisiana, a state known for its high incarceration rate, may strike some out-of-staters as unexpected.  

But the development may also reflect a growing sentiment among Louisianans of all political stripes that to effectively reduce recidivism and bring down the economic costs of mass incarceration, the state must rethink its tough-on-crime policies. One recent poll found that 82 percent of Louisiana voters support criminal justice reform, with 91 percent of respondents favoring additional rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders.

"I think there's a feeling of responsibility, that the change needs to happen here and it needs to happen now," says Annie Freitas, program director of the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, which helped write and advocate for the bill. 

Perhaps above all, local and national observers say, the new law underscores the importance of putting a human face to policy. Ms. Freitas and Steib-Martin both attribute the bill's passage in large part to the personal testimonies given by Steib-Martin and others with similar stories.

"I think we were able to show that mass incarceration affects everyone," Steib-Martin says. "Showing how something so small could change so many lives, I think everybody was able to get on board with that."

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