by Hunter Simonson
Throughout the last year or so, President Barack Obama has quietly supported “banning the box.” The box, in this case, is the line on almost every job application that asks applicants to indicate whether they have been convicted of a felony.
When I first heard the idea, in the context of social justice, it struck me as bizarre I hadn’t considered the detrimental effect “the box” has on people. I’ve heard it said the easiest part of being a felon is the prison sentence. It’s trying to live a dignified life on the outside that’s the ultimate punishment.
The felons whom the box-ban initiative seeks to help are mostly non-violent, low-level offenders. I empathize with employers who would want an applicant’s criminal history disclosed upfront for the safety of employees.
Ideally, a criminal sentence would reflect the severity of a behavior. However, most violent criminals are released at some point. It’s reasonable to alter “the box,” in these cases, to ask applicants to indicate whether they have been convicted of violent or eggregious financial crimes. For the purposes of this article, when I refer to “felons,” I’m referring to non-violent offenders, who make up the majority of that population.
Fourteen states and dozens of cities have taken the lead. The idea behind banning the box is if the “felon question” is removed and a criminal background check is moved later into the hiring process, it allows applicants to have more time to prove themselves to potential employers. The current tendency is for employers to immediately throw out a felon’s application, almost always before even seeing or speaking to the applicant. This is deeply unfair.
Obama’s seeking to live up to the American ideals of reinvention and forgiveness. Last Tuesday, he “banned the box” from appearing on job applications for federal jobs. As President, he can’t simply will the states into making these changes, but voicing the issue has brought it to many people’s attention. In a sense, that’s his most natural role — to communicate the needs of those our society silences. I commend him for taking this step to bring America closer to the fulfillment of its values.
One in 12 Americans has been convicted of a felony. This accounts for 25 percent of adult black men and 7 percent of adult white men. Putting aside (if possible) the institutional racism that allows one in four black men to be arrested and convicted of a felony, the fact that such a large portion of our citizens can be rejected outright from employment represents a huge issue.
More than 40 percent of unemployed people have given up looking for jobs. That is 8.5 million people, and a majority of them are felons. Imagine the despair of knowing you are qualified to get a job, knowing you have the ability to provide for yourself — only to be thwarted at every turn by a simple checkbox on an application.
The American criminal justice system is flawed from top to bottom. It’s one of our nation’s most pressing issues. Our society seems determined that an ex-convict’s life after prison will be even more difficult than it was before incarceration. The lack of job opportunities after serving a felony sentence virtually assures that an ex-convict will return to the black market to pay his or her way through life. Correctional officers always talk about avoiding recidivism (a re-offense), but people in general seem to not understand how this one line in job applications prevents ex-convicts from rejoining society. With the system as it is, true rehabilitation cannot take place in our over-crowded, brutal prisons. Instead, it takes the form of an ex-convict finding a career that speaks to his or her interests and provides financially.
One of America’s biggest flaws is the disconnect between its proclaimed values and its actions. The very definition of the American Dream is that anyone can create a prosperous life if he or she is willing to work hard and chase his or her goals. We have betrayed this dream time and time again. Who better embodies it than someone who has served a felony sentence, corrected his or her behavior, and is now trying to provide for a family?
Redemption is quintessentially American. With Obama’s lead, every state and municipality should take this opportunity to judge individuals by their professionalism and qualifications, not their past.