Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or crime?
☐ YES ☐ NO
On the Common Application, there is a little box that you tick “yes” if you have been convicted of any crime in the past. For most students, that’s a box they skip over without any thought. But for ex-convicts, it’s a question that makes them ponder for awhile.
This simple question also brings hesitation for employees trying to apply for a job through paper applications. They could either lie and risk getting caught after they get a job – or tick “yes” and risk never getting a job.
According to the “Ban the Box” campaign, 1 out of 4 American adults have been convicted of a crime. If we were to assume that all convicts are unlikely to be considered as a possible candidate for a job, that means a quarter of US adults could have a hard time getting a job.
“When we think about the consequences of a criminal conviction, we tend to think about the formal sentence. A sentencing judge can, for example, send the defendant to jail or prison, or impose a fine or probationary term…But that’s far from the end of the story,” said Kevin Sali, a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon.
Even after serving their term, the formerly-incarcerated are considered dangerous or harmful simply because of the label “criminal,” a very broad term that is misapplied especially to ex-convicts who were punished for a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
All of Us or None, a civil rights initiative organization of formerly-incarcerated people and families founded the Ban the Box campaign in effort to break biases of people with conviction histories by encouraging employers to refrain from asking employers their conviction history. Not knowing their criminal offenses could minimize prejudice against ex-convicts talents and skills.
There already exists laws that require additional notice requirements or job screening tests provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that delineates factors such as nature, type of offense, and time passed since the conviction. But Ban the Box campaign hopes to go beyond the Anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other laws requiring or relating to background screening.
“In theory, it’s a good concept and seems to be ‘fair’ and ‘forgiving,’ but practically speaking, it has a lot of problems and can actually be endangering society at times more than protecting it. For example, you could unknowingly hire a convicted pedophile to work at school, and if you couldn’t ask about their criminal past, that could potentially cause a lot of problems,” said senior Ishaan Madaan.
Ban the Box has successfully spread the movement to over 100 cities since 2004 and Obama initiated an executive order to ban the box for federal jobs last year.
“The President has also called on Congress to pass meaningful criminal justice reform, including reforms that reduce recidivism for those who have been in prison and are re-entering society. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which recently received a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would be an important step forward in this effort, by providing new incentives and opportunities for those incarcerated,” as reported from Office of the Press Secretary.
Criminal justice is not only an issue for employees but for students who apply for college.
After the Common Application added the question about criminal records in 2006, nearly 500 colleges have adopted this requirement. However, they often fail to train their staff members in how to weigh criminal histories, which can range from minor alcohol convictions to rape. Also, as juvenile records can be sealed by court, some students can legally say they have not committed a crime while other juvenile convict students must proceed with the screening, making this question an inaccurate representation of applicant’s criminal histories.
Similar to the Ban the Box campaign, Education From the Inside Out Coalition (EIO) works to end practice of screenings applicants for criminal histories, arguing that “these screenings fail to make campuses safer, exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities in higher education and threaten to roll back the gains in Brown v. Board of Education.”
Ban the Box highlights how someone’s future can be stymied by one mistake they made in their life because of the expectations of society. While all statutes and ordinances matter, society’s perception of ex-convicts, and the underlying discrimination against them, matter as well. There are still many factors to be considered and justified, but removing barriers to higher education or a new job could empower those with criminal involvement to positively transform their lives.