By Shelly Brown
Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 688 into law on Friday, making Louisiana the first state in the nation to ban the box on college admissions applications. Starting this fall, the new law prohibits public post-secondary education institutions in the state from inquiring about a potential student’s criminal history during admissions with some exceptions.
“It makes me very happy because I don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I went through,” said Syrita Steib of New Orleans. Steib was at the state capitol in Baton Rouge with her young son, Ethan, showing support for the so-called ban the box law. She spent almost a decade in prison after stealing cars from a Texas dealership, then torching the place.
“Even though my crime didn’t involve people, I was still considered a violent offender,” Steib said. As an inmate, she took college classes, but struggled to get into a university once she got out. She believes the box on her application was her barrier.
“What research shows is that two out of three people with convictions that want to go to college when they start the application and they see the question, they stop,” Annie Freitas, Program Director with the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition said.
“I found out I was pregnant in 2011, and I was like I gotta do something so I was like I’ll apply to the same school and see what happens. I’m not checking the box, and I didn’t,” Steib explained. Steib was accepted that time and even received scholarships to attend UNO. She later graduated from LSU Health Sciences Center. Today, she’s a licensed medical technologist and holds a supervisor position in New Orleans.
Steib and Freitas worked closely with lawmakers and colleges to author the bill. “The President from UNO, he asked us to include an amendment so that you can ask on the application have you ever been convicted of aggravated sexual assault or stalking.” The law also includes an appeals process for applicants who are denied access based on that exception.
With access to higher ed, the women believe many more formerly incarcerated people can be rehabilitated and serve meaningful roles in our community. The new law does not prevent colleges from asking about criminal history after the admissions process when it comes to applying for financial aid and campus housing for example.