Nebraska just became the first red state in the country to bar employers from asking prospective employees about their criminal histories on job applications.
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R) on Wednesday signed a broad bill meant to ease overcrowding in the state’s prisons. It covers job training programs, mental health and transitional services, and fair hiring practices for ex-offenders — one specifically aimed at eliminating the so-called ‘box’ that asks about criminal history from initial job applications for public employers.
The bill passed with “little fanfare,” said a spokesperson for the Governor. It was approved by the legislature on a vote of 46–0.
State Senator Brad Ashford (D-Omaha), who authored the bill, said that the potential budget savings from helping keep people out of prisons was one of the keys to getting everyone on board. But he also said the state has been focused on criminal justice issues for a while — they started with juveniles — and that there’s been consensus from Republicans and Democrats alike on it.
“Intervention as a mantra, even though we’re a red state, seeped into the way we dealt with juveniles,” he said.
“It’s quite a thing really. We’re very pleased. I’m happy. Whenever we get 46-to-0, it’s quite an accomplishment. These are conservative Republicans so you have to be pleased that there’s a coming together of conservatives and liberals.”
Ashford also added that the legislature is particularly interested in reducing prison sentences for low-level offenders. “We’re marrying what the Attorney General is doing on the federal level with non-violent drug offenders,” he said, “since that’s where the massive incarceration rate has largely come from.” The passage of this bill into law comes just on the heels of another red state governor, Georgia’s Nathan Deal (R), pledging to issue an executive order to the same effect.
Nebraska is now the 11th state to “ban the box” — as advocates for the policy call it — and Georgia would make 12. Overall, the movement has been gaining steam in recent years, in part because of prison overcrowding that has pressed the issue of recidivism rates. Prison admissions in Nebraska are at their highest in a decade, and a March report from the state’s correctional department shows that the prisons are at 154 percent of capacity across the state. One institution is even holding 266 percent the number of occupants it was designed to hold.
This article has been updated to clarify the fact that the ban the box measure only applies to public employers.