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From Prison to Public Service

Ban the Box initiatives are one step toward breaking the cycle of incarceration.
Waiting for a job interview. (Photo: baranq/Shutterstock)

Waiting for a job interview. (Photo: baranq/Shutterstock)

The now-viral video of a Texas teenage girl attending a pool party crying for her mom after she was slammed to the ground by a white male police officer has once again re-ignited the calls for police reform.

While the officer identified as Eric Casebolt was placed on administrative leave by the McKinney police department—and has since resigned—the issues this action raise are neither isolated nor nearly resolved.

The repercussions of profiling—racial and otherwise—encompass the entire justice system and extend beyond the streets of suburban Dallas to our American prisons and back to the streets when those who were incarcerated are released. What will happen to the 650,000 people estimated to be released this year?

The two biggest factors that determine whether or not formerly incarcerated people will recidivate are their ability to obtain housing and employment. The 2008 Jacksonville Ex-Offender Opportunity study found that people with criminal convictions who are unemployed are 500 times more likely to go back to prison.

In a study conducted in New York City, a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a call-back or job offer by nearly 50 percent.

To break the cycle of incarceration that occurs in so many people’s lives—especially in low-income communities—we need to ensure people have the opportunity to become gainfully employed when returning from prison. We need to end profiling of a different kind.

A recent study by the Center for Employment Opportunities found that more than 40 percent of people will be re-incarcerated—and more than two-thirds re-arrested—within three years of being released from prison. Employment challenges, sobriety, housing, mental health, and a lack of strong social ties are among the primary reasons that people return to jail or prison.

Ban the Box is an effort to end employment discrimination against the formerly incarcerated by deferring questions regarding criminal history until later in the application and hiring process. It proposes not including a box to check requesting information on prior convictions on all public employment applications.

This is not an effort to hide applicants’ criminal record from employers; it simply allows applicants to be judged on their current skills and qualifications while not being immediately screened out because of a past mistake.

The results from a recent National Institute of Justice survey suggest that between 60 and 75 percent of former inmates are jobless up to a year after release. In a study conducted in New York City, a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a call-back or job offer by nearly 50 percent. And the negative effect of a criminal record was substantially larger for black applicants.

As the state director of the Georgia chapter of 9to5 Working Women, an organization dedicated to building a movement for economic justice, I led the city of Atlanta’s Ban the Box campaign. In 2013, Atlanta joined the list of more than 30 cities and 13 states that have passed Ban the Box policies to help remove barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

In Durham, North Carolina, since Ban the Box policies were implemented in 2011, the overall proportion of people with criminal records hired by the city has increased nearly seven-fold. In addition to the cities and states that have banned the box, private employers including Target and Koch Industries have also adopted these fair hiring policies, in 2013 and just last month, respectively.

More employers are beginning to understand that screening out applicants because of their past does not allow them to select from the broadest, most qualified pool of candidates, and therefore may have an adverse impact on their hiring decisions.

Employers will still be able to inquire about an individual’s criminal history, but later in the hiring process, preferably during a face-to-face interview after a conditional offer has been made. The goal is not to hide a person’s background. Instead, the goal is for the applicant to have an opportunity to explain the nature of the crime, how long it has been since the crime, and what steps have been taken toward rehabilitation.

In light of the shootings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, President Obama spoke earlier this year about the need for criminal justice reform. "If we are serious about solving this problem, then we're going to not only have to help the police, we're going to have to think about what can we do—the rest of us—to make sure ... that we're reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons,” he said. “So that we're not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a non-violent drug offense."

Incidents like the recent treatment by police of a black teenage girl in Texas remind us that reform is necessary in every aspect of the justice system. Let’s work to make sure that those who exit out of that system get the fresh start they deserve.