Georgia is poised to become the first state in the Deep South to "ban the box," or stop asking potential employees about their criminal pasts on job applications.
Those seeking state jobs, with exceptions for public safety and similar work, won't have to reveal their criminal histories when they apply, under an order to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Instead, applicants will be required to disclose any criminal convictions during a face-to-face interview, Deal spokeswoman Sasha Dlugolenski said.
"Issuing this order will afford some [people] with blemishes on their record a shot at a good job, which is key to preventing a return to crime," Dlugolenski said.
Georgia will join a growing list of states, cities, counties -- and employers such as Walmart and Target -- that have stopped using applications to screen for criminal convictions.
Rules vary as to when employers can "pop the question" and ask about an applicant's criminal past. For example, in Hawaii -- the first state to ban the box in 1998 -- employers must wait until they've made a job offer before they can inquire.
Some laws prevent employers from asking about arrests without convictions, expunged convictions or convictions that don't relate to the type of work the applicant seeks.
In most cases, restrictions apply only to public sector jobs. But private employers have to comply with ban the box in four states, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Rhode Island, and some cities, such as Baltimore and San Francisco.
Ban-the-box laws have been encouraged by civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which says that people of color make up better than two-thirds of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans.
Convicted criminals are denied a chance to work after they've paid their debt and served their time, the NAACP says.
"It will make a big difference. People have to be gainfully employed," said Eric Atkins, branch secretary of the Chattanooga Hamilton County NAACP, who estimates that thousands of Chattanoogans could benefit.
Local activist group Concerned Citizens for Justice plans to launch a Chattanooga ban-the-box campaign, community organizer Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson said.
"We're still in the research and planning phase with our members and people who will be directly impacted," she said.
Not everyone agrees with the concept of preventing employers from using applications to vet a potential employee's past.
In Detroit and elsewhere, Huffington Post Detroit reported, critics have said that employees have the right to know when they are working with a former criminal.
In Washington, D.C., the lone councilman to vote against that city's proposal said he worried that it gives ex-offenders greater rights in the hiring process than other citizens, the Washington Post reported.
In North Georgia, many people didn't know about the measure or declined to comment. Troy Potter, an entrepreneur who is the landlord for Roy's Grill in Rossville, came down on the side of business, not the individual.
"Too many skeletons in closets," said Potter. "I need quality people."
In other states, critics of ban the box have derided it as a "dog and pony show" because employers still turn down applicants who reveal past convictions during an interview, wasting both parties' time.
In Hawaii, the business community largely united against ban the box, but it passed easily, said state Sen. Sam Slom, the sole Republican amid Hawaii's 24 Democratic senators.
"It has been a pain," Slom said. "It's one more problem in Hawaii's business climate."
While there's been anecdotal evidence of crime committed by employees hired after Hawaii enacted ban the box, Slom said, there's no hard data to back that up.
Georgia to 'lead by example'
Deal was inspired to ban the box on the recommendation of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, Dlugolenski said, which the governor established in 2011 with the goal to "protect public safety and hold offenders accountable while controlling state costs."
One of its members was former state Rep. Jay Neal, a Republican from LaFayette, Ga.
Neal stepped down from the council after the governor appointed him last year as executive director of the state's new Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry. That agency works to reduce recidivism among criminals, enhance public safety and ensure that the state's convicted offenders can successfully re-enter society.
Georgia wants to "lead by example," Neal said, and restrict ban the box to state jobs, instead of making private business comply.
"We did not want to tell private business what they could put on job applications," Neal said.
Deal will face Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter on the November ballot. Polls have shown that Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's grandson, has a shot at winning.
Deal probably hasn't embraced ban the box as a gambit to lean left and appeal to would-be Carter voters in the general election, a pundit said.
"I don't think it would be for that reason," said Tom Crawford, editor of The Georgia Report, which provides daily coverage of political news at the state capitol.
Deal wants to get a handle on the growing cost of running the state's prisons, Crawford said.
"This is an issue that he's been talking about ... for the last four years," Crawford said. "It's not necessarily so much for humanitarian reasons, but as a way to save taxpayers' money."
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...