Every year 650,000 individuals are released from prison and thrust back into the real world after months, years, or even decades away. Coming home and trying to find a sense of independence and normalcy is often the number one goal for a population that has been confined to a place as dehumanizing as prison. However, few can anticipate just how hard reentry can be when you've got a felony conviction branded on your chest, and a feeling that the world wants you to fail.
After years of advocating on behalf of reentering citizens, we're finally seeing a huge wave of support for the "ban the box" movement and fair hiring practices in jobs and education. Fair chance hiring enables those with a conviction to be viewed on a job, apartment, and college application as a person first, rather than the sum of their past mistakes. By waiting until the later stages of the hiring process to ask whether a person has a criminal conviction, an employer sees the promise and positive qualities of a candidate, instead of just the fact the person has a prior offense. This practice makes sense, given the fact that roughly one-third of our population now has a criminal conviction on record.
Currently, more than 150 jurisdictions in 24 states have passed laws preventing public agencies from asking about criminal history on job applications. Nine states and many other cities have followed suit, extending "ban the box" efforts to encompass private companies as well. The Department of Education even released a "Beyond the Box" initiative encouraging colleges and universities in this country to stop asking potential students about their pasts.
In fact, it was a push from my organization, the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition) to ban the box in higher education that spurred the DOE to take action. Even the largest public university system in the nation-the State University of New York-vowed to move the box off its initial college applications in September because of the EIO Coalition's organizing and public education efforts.
However, research showing that "ban the box" practices may have a reverse effect on the hiring of minority candidates is threatening to unravel the work that many have done to protect this vulnerable population. The study sent out 15,000 fictitious applications to companies in New Jersey and New York City before and after fair hiring/ban the box initiatives were passed.
The study showed that without being able to ask whether a person has a criminal conviction on an application, employers are instead reverting to horrible stereotypes based on a person's name, and inviting fewer applicants with minority-sounding names to second round interviews since the laws in those states were passed. It was found that ban the box practices did help those with "white-sounding" names, but if the name seemed vaguely black or brown, the applicants were less likely to get a callback.
There's a lot to unpack in this study, but saying ban the box should be reversed because it is ineffective isn't an accurate or useful conclusion. If anything, this study highlights the outdated mindset some employers unfortunately still have regarding the 77 million people who have been arrested in this country.
What we need isn't to further question laws meant to protect the vulnerable, but to focus on sensitivity and diversity training in the workforce. Effective training should emphasize the implications mass incarceration has on the workforce. Just think: if all arrested Americans made their own country, it would be the 18th largest in the world, larger than both Canada and France. Can you imagine cutting out all of Canada from job, housing, and college applications?
The momentum has been strong for ban the box practices in this country, and now is not the time to slow them down. We must continue to help make reentry in this country easier, not just for the individual, but for the sake of families and communities as well.