This question was once a frustrating brick wall if you were an ex-convict living in New York City and applying for a job. There, within a box on almost any application: “Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Felony?”
Those eight words consistently dashed the hopes of generations of people who had paid their debt to society, and achieved rehabilitation. All they were trying to do was move on with their lives, despite the scarlet letter of perhaps a stupid adolescent mistake, an act of anger or passion, or a moment of non-critical thinking.
The box ultimately meant that a potential employer had the right to discriminate against an applicant simply because he or she had done time – even a short amount. It was more restraining than the bars they were just freed from.
But those days are now over in New York thanks to the Fair Chance Act taking effect this week after being signed into law last summer. And this should be the case everywhere.
Mayor Bill de Blasio supported the “ban the box” effort in the city, which stops employers from coercing one-time prisoners into crippling their chances of gainful employment. It’s a move that has been a long time in coming because of the sheer numbers of people who remain unemployed and even fall back into recidivism simply because they must acknowledge a past they would rather leave behind.
With a disproportionate number of African Americans having been convicted of crimes, that means in Black communities nationwide the next step after incarceration for many is unemployment, then incarceration again because realistically, job prospects are few for ex-cons.
The National Institute of Justice cited a study conducted in New York that showed having a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback from a prospective employer by 50 percent. That likelihood was even worse for Black applicants.
The NIJ also observed in a study of 30 states, more than 67 percent of the people followed had been rearrested within three years.
This all suggests that with few options, many people who cannot get jobs because of their convictions will resort to crime and wind up back behind bars. But really, this isn’t new information and should come as no surprise to people who have watched members of their community, family members, and even spouses convicted two, three or more times because a legalized form of discrimination left them with few options.
With the box playing such a role in unemployment and recidivism it’s no wonder many on both sides of the political aisle are making an effort get rid of it.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal issued an executive order last February that ended use of the question on applications. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential candidate signed legislation in 2014 to do the same. Even Target, Walmart and yes, even Koch Industries have also eliminated the box.
But it still exists in many states and municipalities needlessly.
Under laws like the Fair Chance Act, no employer would be required to hire someone who was convicted of a crime. It would not hinder background checks nor would it mean an ex-felon would necessarily be able to qualify for a job in law enforcement.
Hawaii was the first state to end the process of screening people out through use of the box and the practice quickly spread to 12 more states and 97 cities, according to the Washington Post. But what would speed up the process of getting rid of this insidious form of discrimination would be a federal “ban the box” law.
Perhaps President Obama, in the sunset of his tenure in the Oval Office might be able to find common ground with Republicans who support the idea, to sign such a bill into law nationwide.
It’s an idea whose time has come. Let’s think outside the box.
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.