Reducing Recidivism May Hinge on Movement to 'Ban the Box'

Asking job seekers about their criminal histories keeps nonviolent ex-cons from building a new life, advocates say.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times,, and Entertainment Weekly.

On employment, housing, public benefits, and insurance forms, there's a little black square next to the question many of us breeze past: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

But for the estimated 65 million adults in the United States with a criminal record who must check “yes,” the question can be a roadblock to getting a job, starting a new life, and moving past the crushing and immediate discrimination that comes with a criminal record. A decade after grassroots prisoner rights organization All of Us or None kicked off a campaign with the simple three-word message “Ban the Box," 10 states and 56 local jurisdictions across the country have joined in to remove the question from public employee forms. Recent success has pumped fuel into a nationwide movement for better hiring opportunities for criminal offenders, many of whom are non-violent.

Last week, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee signed into city law the Fair Chance Ordinance, taking the idea of banning the box from public employee forms a step further to also address affordable housing and private employment. The San Francisco ordinance outlaws conviction history questions by private employers with more than 20 employees and by contractors with city contracts over $5,000, as well as by residential buildings given funding by the city.

“There’s a growing societal consensus in our state, California, and country that punishment is not a compelling societal goal in and of itself, and punishing someone doubly for a mistake made in the past isn’t worthwhile,” said attorney Jesse Stout, policy director of San Francisco–based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which backs the box-banning campaign.

“I’ve done criminal defense work, and people who are accused of crimes, like clients I’ve had, are also just people too. Through ban-the-box policies, we can improve public safety to get employment for people who have been convicted so they stay out of jail,” said Stout.

As of 2014, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have implemented state laws or administrative orders requiring the removal of questions about conviction history from their public employment applications, said Stout. The 56 local jurisdictions that have also implemented ban-the-box policies for public employment forms include New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Boston, Kansas City, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

In what Stout considers a “big moment” for the movement, California passed state law A.B. 218, its version of a ban-the-box policy, last October. The law says that by July 1, 2014, public employee applicants won't have to disclose criminal convictions, either verbally or in writing, until after a determination has been made that the applicant meets minimum employment qualifications for the job.

Of course, concerns over hiring someone with a potentially violent or harsh criminal past are undeniably important, said Stout. But the box gives employers an easy excuse to drop some applications in the circular file—applications from candidates who can do the job and need a break.

“The policy does not prevent employers from finding out about conviction history. It just changes the time that an employer finds out, so they find out after minimum requirements are met,” said Stout. “They have to keep in mind when the conviction happened, nature of the conviction, and evidence of rehabilitation.”

Though no Southern states have yet passed statewide ban-the-box policies, individual Southern cities and counties, such as Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans, along with Austin and Travis County in Texas, have public-employee-form bans on conviction history questions, said Stout. It’s a start, with more headway to come. It's part of a growing awareness among conservatives that measures that were pushed politically as "tough on crime" are bankrupting states while proving ineffectual. Increasing rehabilitation programs for prisoners is a similar trend.

“We need more diversity of different places in the country to implement ban-the-box, not only for public employment everywhere in the country but also for private employment, public and private housing, and loan applications,” Stout added. “It’s not only about changing policy for people to get equal treatment. It’s also about changing the societal outlook so that all people should have hope.”