Prison BreakEarlier this month, my home state of New Jersey decided to “Ban the Box”: Gov. Chris Christie signed the Opportunity to Compete Act into law on August 11. When the law takes effect in March of 2015, it will make it illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to ask job candidates about their criminal histories on initial applications. Employers will still be allowed to run background checks and obtain information about applicants’ criminal histories, but only after an applicant has had at least one interview with the company.

New Jersey is not alone in banning the box. (“The box” of the nationwide movement’s name refers to the little space people must check on job applications if they have ever been convicted.) Indeed, twelve other states have already banned it. (A quick shout-out to Paul Petrone here, whose post on Recruiting Blogs pointed me in the direction of this resource.)

Civil rights organization All of Us or None started the Ban the Box movement a decade ago. The thought process behind the movement is simple, really: when people get out of jail, they need jobs. Unfortunately, these people can’t get jobs if employers are throwing away any ex-con’s application as a matter of course. Ban the Box reasons that, if employers wait to ask about criminal history until after they’ve gotten to know candidates, ex-cons will have a better shot at getting hired, because they’ll have a chance to demonstrate their qualifications well before an employer learns about their past. If a person can prove they’re the perfect candidate for the job, employers may be willing to overlook their criminal history.

As the box is banned across America, though, some have criticized the movement. Don Livingston, an attorney and a former general counsel to the Equal Opportunity Commission, told the Society for Human Resource Management that, in some cases, “it is sound business practice to seek information at the outset of the application process that is important in screening applicants. This includes information about criminal convictions that are manifestly job related, such as a history of theft for someone seeking a bank teller position or a history of sexual crimes for a job in a high school.”

Similarly, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) found that 88 percent of business owners in Michigan were against banning the box. Charlie Owens, state director of the NFIB in Michigan, told Michigan Radio that banning the box was a good way to waste time and cost companies money: “You’ve wasted the prospective employee’s time … you’ve wasted your time … not to mention the expense involved, and you get to start over.”

Livingston’s and Owens’ comments are representative of the overarching themes in criticism of the Ban the Box movement: some employers worry about how an employee’s criminal history might impact their behavior on the job (Petrone points out that “the recidivism rate for released prisoners is roughly 66 percent”), while others are annoyed at wasting time and money on interviews and screening processes just to find out that the candidate they’ve been talking to is an ex-con (a dealbreaker for many employers).

Still, despite the Livingstons and Owens of the world, I’m glad to see more and more states ban the box.

A Case for Banning the Box

Consider that America has the largest prison population in the world. Consider that our incarceration rates are 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in other comparable democratic countries. Consider that people of color are disproportionately represented in prison populations.

In short, consider the sheer number of people in the U.S. who have a criminal history. By using convictions as a screening tool, employers create a huge chunk of unemployed/underemployed Americans. What’s more: employment cuts the recidivism rate in half. As long as employers refuse to even give ex-cons a chance, they actually contribute to growing income inequality and higher crime rates.

If, on the other hand, employers stop using criminal histories to screen candidates from the start, then ex-cons might have a shot. Think about it: if an applicant’s resumé wows you, you call them in for an interview. If they wow you at the interview, you start thinking about bringing them on. If you find out after all of this that the applicant has a criminal history – well, you might just overlook it, because you’ve already seen that this person has a lot to offer you.

And in this way, ex-cons can find employment. Recidivism rates can drop. A group of people can pay their bills. Banning the box is good for society as a whole.

Now, I understand Livingston’s concerns about how prior crimes may impact a person’s ability to do certain jobs – for example, no one wants a pedophile in an elementary school. But banning the box doesn’t prohibit background checks entirely – it just moves them. Pedophiles still won’t end up in elementary schools. But the guy who got busted for having a joint on him? The girl who stole in a moment of desperation? They might make pretty awesome teachers. It’d be a shame to miss out on great candidates simply because those candidates made some mistakes in their pasts.

As it turns out, all of my pleading on behalf of this movement may be unnecessary: Lester Rosen, founder and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, says that Ban the Box “is becoming a national trend.” It’s inevitable, Rosen says. Employers just need to accept it and adjust their practices accordingly.

I hope he’s right.

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