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COLUMBIA – South Carolina’s tight job market is the main reason the state should limit when employers can ask prospects about prior criminal convictions, according to a lawmaker supporting the change.

“Ban the box” laws prevent employers from asking about criminal convictions on an initial job application.

Early screenings now keep out some candidates that companies would ultimately decide to hire if the process worked differently, said Columbia representative Todd Rutherford.

Under his proposal, employers could still ask about past legal problems as a prospective employee entered the interview stage of the hiring process.

He has introduced a bill to change how companies can hire in South Carolina for the 2023-24 legislative session. The change will help companies find more workers, which SC employers often say is a challenge, Rutherford said.

“Now it’s an overwhelming issue when talking to businesses,” Rutherford said. “Businesses in South Carolina cannot succeed until we fill this labor shortage.”

Rutherford also believes his measure will allow people to find a constructive role in society after serving their time.

Screening initial job applicants for criminal convictions actually makes it easier for an ex-felon to buy a gun than find a job, Rutherford said, because South Carolina’s gun laws are more lenient.

The Greenville Chamber of Commerce, which advocates for employers across the U.S., said it had not analyzed Rutherford’s pre-filed bill.

The chamber has previously opposed sweeping ban-the-box measures, calling them an intrusion on companies’ right to choose their workforce as they see fit, CEO Carlos Phillips said.

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The Greenville Chamber remains interested, Phillips said, in proposals that expand the removal of prior petty offenses from criminal records as a way to make employment available to those with past convictions.

Businesses should look for non-traditional ways to give potential employees a second chance, Phillips told The Post and Courier.

“It’s important that returning citizens have every opportunity to find gainful employment because studies clearly show that people who find work after serving time lead to lower recidivism rates and stronger communities,” Phillips said.

Previous moves to pass statewide “ban the box” legislation have failed, including a similar bill sponsored by Rutherford in the most recent legislative session that failed to reach the House floor.

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Some local governments have taken this step.

In 2019, Columbia became the first SC city to change its hiring rules to not ask about convictions during pre-screenings for its own positions, a move Richland County has followed.

The city of Aiken has also adopted a “box ban”.

North Carolina and Georgia are both more lenient in expunging prior convictions from police records than South Carolina, Rutherford said, making it even more important to him that the Legislature help more people become part of the workforce.

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