Students practice during a class at the Maryland Live! Casino. A Maryland bill would limit automatic denial to job applicants convicted, paroled or placed on probation for certain crimes. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

In a change that could affect thousands of people with criminal pasts looking for work in Maryland’s casinos, state lawmakers have passed legislation to stop automatically disqualifying job applicants who have committed “crimes of moral turpitude” or gambling offenses at any time in their past.

The legislation, which limits automatic denial to those convicted, paroled or placed on probation in the previous seven years, would be among the most lenient in the country — though gaming regulators would still have the opportunity to deny licenses whenever they think it’s appropriate.

Most employees — from cashiers and craps dealers to bartenders and those who bus tables — have to be licensed to work at Maryland casinos, which are expanding dramatically and adding thousands of jobs across the state. Some casino states, including West Virginia and Ohio, impose total bans on employing people convicted of certain crimes. Delaware imposes a 10-year ban.

The new approach in Maryland won approval in the House of Delegates on Thursday, with a 94 to 40 vote. The Senate passed a similar bill by unanimous vote in February, all but guaranteeing that the legislation will get to the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) by the end of session next month.

The bill, which would take effect immediately, was introduced on behalf of city officials in Baltimore, where the Horseshoe casino is expected to employ 1,700 people when it opens in 2014 — and where more than half of Maryland’s ex-offenders return from prison each year and often struggle to find employment.

When voters in Maryland chose to allow games like blackjack and craps in casinos, it set in motion major changes at “Maryland Live!” in Hanover, Md. Videojournalist Brad Horn goes behind the scenes for a look at what it takes to keep the games going at the growing casino. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

“The impact should be meaningful,” said Mary Pat Fannon, a lobbyist for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

And it could have the same effect in Prince George’s County, where a sixth casino is in the planning stages.

But the most immediate impact would be in Baltimore, where the mayor and other officials have championed the Horseshoe as a major job creator in a city that badly needs one: Baltimore’s unemployment rate averaged 10.2 percent last year, one of the highest figures in the state.

“It’s extremely difficult for an individual with a criminal record to compete for a job in this economic climate,” said Kimberly Haven, a criminal-justice advocate who was convicted of a theft charge two years ago. “They don’t even get a second glance.”

“At some point,” she said, “the past has to stop overshadowing the future. How long does someone’s past have to hang over them?”

More than half of the roughly 19,000 people sent to Maryland prisons in fiscal 2010 and 2011 were from Baltimore, according to Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services data.

For thousands of ex-offenders, the bill would remove an automatic barrier to landing a casino job without damaging the integrity of the state’s booming gaming business, said Caryn York of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a statewide nonprofit organization.

“It’s not saying the casinos have to hire anybody or the state has to license them; it’s just saying some individuals won’t be automatically disqualified from consideration,” said York, who testified in support of the changes. “And we’re talking about jobs where you’re cleaning the bathrooms or sweeping floors in the casino. We’re probably not talking about blackjack dealers — positions that would require a higher level of scrutiny.”

The current ban on ex-offenders has had some “unintended consequences,” said Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, including denying employment to some people “who have otherwise led exemplary lives.” He cited as examples people who might have stolen hubcaps or written bad checks decades ago.

The more lenient standards hit— and cleared — their only real road bump Thursday on the floor of the House, when Minority Whip Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Talbot) cautioned her colleagues that the legislation represented “a pretty drastic change” in policy. She was among the 40 lawmakers who voted against the bill.

So was Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County). “We’re talking about a limited number of jobs, handling a lot of cash, with responsibility to take care of that,” she said. “Because it’s a limited number of jobs, we should be able to be selective about who gets them.”

But supporters saw it differently. “If a person hasn’t committed a crime in seven years, has been clean for seven years, we’ve vetted that person well enough,” said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), chairman of the city delegation in Annapolis.

Licensing regulations vary dramatically from state to state.

In Delaware, applicants are automatically disqualified if they’ve been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude or a gambling offense in the previous 10 years. In Pennsylvania, the look-back period is 15 years. In West Virginia, any conviction, at any time, for a crime of moral turpitude, a gaming offense or a theft or fraud offense is grounds for automatic rejection. In Nevada, where only gaming employees need to obtain licenses, there are no automatic rejections written into the state code.

Martino, director of Maryland’s regulatory agency, said his office had been mulling a proposal similar to the ones proposed in Annapolis — but with a 10-year look-back period.

Regulators have a list of more than 240 crimes that their lawyers consider to be crimes involving moral turpitude, including theft, embezzlement, passing bad checks and perjury. Drug possession and distribution are not considered crimes of moral turpitude.

“All this legislation does is remove the requirement that we deny the license,” Martino said, adding that regulators will still have discretion to consider offenses committed more than seven years ago. Moreover, he said, “the employer doesn’t have to hire anyone they don’t want to.”

The legislation comes amid a major expansion in Maryland’s casino industry. Last November, voters approved table games and around-the-clock operations at existing slots casinos and the new property in Prince George’s.

This spring, a new casino — the state’s fourth — is scheduled to open at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in western Maryland. The casino has about 200 employees and expects to add about 250 licensed workers in the next two months.

Hollywood Casino Perryville, which this month became the first gaming facility in Maryland to offer live-action table games, is adding about 140 jobs for its conversion from limited-hours slots hall to 24-hour casino complete with craps, blackjack and poker tables. Maryland Live, the airplane-terminal-size casino at Arundel Mills mall, is adding about 800 dealers to its payroll for its April 11 table-games launch; the casino, which already pulls in an average of $1.1 million a day in gambling revenue, also plans to add a 50-table poker room this summer.