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Reintegrating Ex-Cons May Be The New Civil Rights Frontier

Last week, North Las Vegas became the latest city to consider removing a barrier that prevents people with criminal records from getting jobs.

The barrier in question is a box. Many job applications have such a box. Job applicants must check this box if they have a criminal record or an arrest record.

No vote was held at the North Las Vegas City council meeting, but the conversation is underway, as it is across the country. More than 150 cities and counties and 24 states have adopted “ban the box” policies, according to the National Employment Law Project.

“Ban the Box as a whole has really reached a tipping point in the country in terms of acceptance,” said Michelle Rodriguez Senior Staff Attorney and Policy Expert at the NELP. “It’s really reached that point where it’s no longer about individuals just moving it forward. It has life of its own.”

The movement was born from the efforts of grass roots organizations like All of Us or None. These groups were organized by former inmates and their families to highlight the challenges that face people with criminal records when they try to reintegrate into society and enter the job market.

“In the United States we have about one in three adults with some type of record and that has the potential to be a job barrier and prevent you from thriving in your community and of course supporting your family,” Rodriguez said. “These initiatives are needed because of the seriousness of the problem of having millions of people in the United States with some kind of arrest or conviction record.”

The movement has garnered so much attention that even the White House has gotten involved. In November 2015, President Obama challenged employers to take the Fair Chance Business Pledge. Employers who take the pledge vow to promote fair chance hiring practices by banning the box, training human resources staff and providing internships and job training to people with criminal records.

The hope is that employers will consider each applicant on their own merits, before asking whether the applicant has a criminal record. High-profile employers have lent their support to the concept, including Richard Branson, Koch Industries and Facebook.

On June 10, 2016, The White House Launched the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge which moved the discussion out of the Human Resources department and onto the university campus. The Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge asked universities to consider a prospective student’s academic criteria first, before asking questions about arrest and conviction records.

In a real-life example of putting their money where their mouth is, the Obama administration launched Second Chance Pell in July. The program will provide funding for 12,000 prisoners to enroll at 67 colleges and universities.

Critics have objected to the program because in 1995 Congress voted to make prisoners ineligible for Federal Pell Grants. However, the Education Department has created the program under the Experimental Sites Initiative, in which Congress granted the U.S. Department of Education the authority to test the effectiveness of new programs without the restriction of specific statutory or regulatory requirements.

“With complicated issues you need to address them on multiple fronts. The overarching theme for all of these policy changes is valuing people for who they are,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not there yet. We’re not in a society yet where we can look at a person and not have the fear that’s attached to them having a record.”

That’s bad news for the economy. An estimated $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP is lost each year due to people with felony convictions being unable to get jobs, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidance for employers on using arrest and conviction records in a way that balances the need for safety with the rights of the individual.

“Basically what it says is you can look at a record if you need to make your job decisions but there shouldn’t be blanket bans,” Rodriguez said. “Instead you’re looking at the whole person. Look to see if something is job related.”

Despite these efforts, many people with arrest and conviction records still struggle to get jobs. Some state and local governments have implemented expungement programs that allow nonviolent offenders the chance to clear their record.

“What is helpful about that, is it acknowledges that the reality of stigma is so deep for people.” Rodriquez said. “As soon as you see a record an employer will have an immediate reaction. There is something that’s very helpful in acknowledging that that’s the case and saying let’s just make that process easier for them.”

Ban the Box and the policy changes that have happened thus far are just the first step, Rodriguez said. 

“How can we also situate ourselves squarely in an anti-discrimination framework?” Rodriguez said. “It does have to do with race and structural racism and how the paring of criminality has been associated particularly with young men of color. That needs to be part of the larger conversation.”