Christopher Williams believes that one little box changed the trajectory of his life.
Williams has been to prison more than once. When he was inside, he tried to prepare himself for the outside, for a chance to move on from the thing for which he’d done his time, by participating in job training programs and GED classes. But when he got out, that box — the box on job applications that asks if the applicant has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime — stopped him in his tracks.
“I just got out of jail doing 6 years, and that box was the thing that kept leading me back into incarcerations,” Williams said, “due to the simple fact that I had a criminal record, and anytime you have a felony or whatever the case may be, it holds you back from certain jobs. To me, it was discrimination because, you didn’t even ask me, what do I have a felony for. You just straight up told me you’ll call me in three days and it’s been three weeks and you never called me back. I get frustrated and it leads me back to the same thing I went to jail for.”
Williams’s prospects changed dramatically in 2010, when Massachusetts banned that box from job applications of both private employers and the government. Employers can still ask whether the applicant has committed a crime, but they can’t do it on initial job applications. And Williams said that’s eliminated the automatic discrimination that never let him get his foot in the door.
“I’ve been applying to jobs, and I’ve been getting a lot of calls back, a lot of interviews, due to the simple fact that that box has changed,” Williams said. “Before they would tell me they’d call me back and I’d wait three or four weeks and they never called me back. So I’d call them, and they’d say, ‘Oh we already gave the job to somebody else.’”
The law change in Massachusetts, and the chance Williams got to have a real fresh start, wasn’t a serendipitous moment. It was a systematic effort, dreamed up by a group of ex-prisoners back in 2003, to ‘ban the box’ on applications all around the country. And it’s become a veritable movement.
Why you should care about ban the box
If you haven’t been arrested and don’t know anyone who has, then you may not realize how pervasive discrimination against former convicts is. When ex-offenders get out of jail, they don’t get to leave their criminal histories behind. Every job application, every insurance form, can be a reexamination of the time they’ve served.
The formerly incarcerated say disclosing this information can be a blow to recovering from time in prison. Though the Department Of Labor doesn’t track the unemployment rate among those returning from convictions, studies have found that it’s about 60 – 75 percent for individuals a year out. Ask people like Williams who’ve done time, and they’ll tell you it’s because their job applications aren’t being considered.
If you can’t find a job, the logic goes, then you can’t make ends meet. If you can’t afford to buy clothing or food, you might steal something to get it. If you can’t find a way out of a life of crime, there’s a good chance you’ll stay in one.
One study in New York City found that applicants were 50 percent less likely to be called back or offered a job if they had a criminal history, and that black applicants with criminal histories were far less likely than white applicants with the same background to get called back. Over 40 percent of people who go to prison in the U.S. return within three years of their release, and Williams believes that this vicious discriminatory job cycle is at least part of the reason why.
Though the movement and the laws are fairly new, banning the box has so far proved an effective policy for reducing these numbers. In Minneapolis, where a ban the box ordinance passed in 2007, the percentage of people with criminal records who were able to find work went from 6 percent to 60.
In a perverted way, ex-prisoners are finding new allies in their fight against discrimination, and it’s helping a movement to ban the box take hold.
“Our estimate is that there are – and this could probably be updated – 65 million adult Americans with some type of criminal record, so with some type of serious arrest, misdemeanor, or felony,” says Michelle Rodriguez, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. “That’s a huge portion then of our adult population that’s facing this. When you really start to talk to people, you really get a sense of how many people have encountered the criminal justice system.”
In the year 2011, one in every 34 American adults was in prison. The total U.S. rate of incarceration — and the rate of imprisonment of children specifically — is the highest of any developed nation. Though prison populations are steadily but slowly dropping, rates for certain populations, namely white and Latino people, is on the rise.
This means that incarceration is becoming cross-cultural, and there’s wider understanding of what it means to have a conviction on your record for the rest of your life.
“We’re really fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the American public as well, and in that regard mass incarceration has helped,” said Linda Evans, who is a former organizer and current member of the ex-offender organizing group All Of Us Or None. “So many people’s families have been affected by people going to jail. And it’s not just people of color, it’s obviously some people — middle class people, white people, whose kids are experimenting with drugs or whatever and they end up going to prison as well, so it has broadened the amount of people that understand what the effects of incarceration are on anybody’s future. It’s become more urgent. People understand the urgency a lot more.”
Evans’s group, All Of Us Or None, is humble about it, but they actually invented the term “ban the box.” Back in 2003, its members decided to make a concerted effort to organize around the rights of the previously convicted.
“We organized six peace and justice community forums around the state [of California] where formerly incarcerated people testified,” Evans recalls. “It became immediately clear that fundamental discrimination based on our arrest and conviction records was our problem, and that we had to go after that.”
They came up with a sustainable yet direct slogan: Ban the box. They left it vague exactly what ‘the box’ is.
The dreaded conviction question isn’t just a box on job applications. It’s on insurance forms, too. And housing applications. And enrollment for public benefits. All Of Us Or None wanted to tackle employment and housing first. They figured they’d start in San Francisco, where the organization is based and where they figured progressive support would be ample. Quickly, they were told that it was too ambitious to try both issues at once.
But after deciding to focus on banning the box on employment applications, the group made slow but steady progress. First, San Francisco ended ‘the box’ on applications for city employee positions. Then Alameda County did the same. Then Oakland, after a longer process, joined in.
“So the bay area really started to move,” Evans said.
And as for the term ‘ban the box’? “We were advised on many occasions to change the slogan,” Evans said. They were told, “‘It’s not a popular slogan, it’s too radical,’ et cetera. And I think that has been disproved by the momentum that this policy initiative really has.”
Picking up steam
It started as a simmer. San Francisco discovered that a similar movement had taken hold in Hawaii years earlier, back in 1998, and the box had been banned statewide for government employees there. Then they found out that the formerly incarcerated had started organizing in Massachusetts.
By 2004, Boston had eliminated the box for all city employees. Two years later it became the first place to extend that ban, via city ordinance, to private businesses. Chicago soon followed with its own ban the box ordinance for government employees in 2006. By 2007, seven major cities and two counties had banned the box from job applications in one form or another.
In 2006, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Cities That Lead The Way.”
“Taken together, the recent developments in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco symbolize a step forward in terms of fairness for law-abiding ex-offenders,” the editorial reads, “who are often barred from entire occupations because of youthful mistakes and minor crimes committed in the distant past. It should be clear to all of us by now that confining those people to the ranks of the unemployed makes it more likely that they will commit new crimes, return to prison and become a permanent burden to society.”
In dollar terms, imprisonment is certainly a “burden to society.” A comprehensive study of 40 states by the Vera Institute of Justice last year found that taxpayers are dishing out $39 billion annually for the prisons in those states. The number of taxpayer dollars spent on a single inmate a year can go as high as $60,076. But research has found that dedicating money to rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration is much more cost effective, saving taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent.
Those “Cities That Lead The Way” really did create a model for the country. Soon after they made moves to ban the box, states followed. Minnesota took the first statewide steps to end ex-offender discrimination in 2009. In 2010, four more states — California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Mexico — joined in. In 2013, five states initiated ban the box policies of some kind, four by legislation and one by administrative order.
There was also a big breakthrough at the federal level: In April of 2013, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission released new guidance on using criminal records in the hiring process. It says that employers are able to ask about criminal history, but are not permitted to discriminate based on what they find out. Doing so would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
But advocates doubt that is enough. There’s a question of whether any employers know about those new guidelines, and even if they did, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when that discrimination happens. When a hiring manager shuffles through a stack of papers, who’s to know if it’s that checked-off box that causes her to throw it in the trash? So the push to ban the box goes on.
Cassandra Bensahih, an ex-prisoner and current organizer with the Massachusetts-based group Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA) saw the world from either side of Massachusetts’ decision to ban the box. She had gone to prison for her first-ever offense — she was addicted to drugs — but said she didn’t realize the implications, because she didn’t have a good lawyer to tell her a one-year jail sentence would mar her record forever.
“I was in need of rehabilitation,” she said, “but the judge thought he’d send me to jail. ”
When she got out, Bensahih’s life had seriously derailed. “I left at about 4 months, but then I ended up using again because I couldn’t get a job, my kids had went to foster care. And I had no way to bring them home. I couldn’t even get an apartment. In my desperation, I decided to seek treatment out… I wanted my life back”
The treatment helped. She got into a rehabilitation program for women, got herself clean, and started getting her life back together. But there was one thing she couldn’t do.
“I can’t tell you how bad it was,” she said. “Every time I filled out an application, the anxiety, to go through the application, sounds like a good fit to you, you knew you could sell yourself, but there was that question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a crime?”
Bensahih got involved in the ban the box movement when EPOCA members came to speak at her rehab program. She ended up joining them in a volunteer capacity for the final two years of their 7-year fight to ban the box. EPOCA was instrumental, along with groups Boston Workers’ Alliance and Neighbor to Neighbor, in getting Massachusetts to pass its 2010 law that bars employers from asking about criminal history on initial applications, and seals all criminal records after 10 years. Bensahih’s life changed along with her state.
“Today, about four and a half years later, even with my record not being able to be sealed til 2018, I’m a community organizer,” she said. “My volunteer work led to a job with the organization I volunteered with, and now I work for EPOCA…. Everything worked out, believe it or not. I’ve had my kids for three years now. My road to recovery got better. My volunteer work helped. I got my kids back, my apartment back, my life. And believe me, sometimes I want to give them back away because they’re all teenagers, but they’re mine, and I love them. And I’m here for them today. I’m five years sober February 3rd, and counting.”
Where we’re headed
In total, 10 states have banned the box, and half of them did it last year. They’re joined by 56 local jurisdictions, by the count of the National Law Employment Project (NELP). NELP has dedicated itself to making 2014 the year to kill the box.
“We’re planning to do a lot in terms of building up resources so that campaigns can take off,” Rodriguez said. “And we’re aiming for a tipping point.”
Banning the box means different things different places. In Minnesota, for example, where 2013 was a year of massive change, the law extends so far as to tell all private employers in the state that they need a conditional offer of employment before they can check the records of an applicant they’re looking to hire. In one of the biggest signs of a shifting wind in the ban the box movement, that caused big box retailer Target, headquartered in the state, to create a company-wide policy to the same effect.
“At Target we are proud of our record on diversity and inclusivity in the workplace,” a spokesperson for the company said at the time. “Target is an industry leader in developing a nuanced criminal background check process that gives qualified applicants with a criminal history a second chance while maintaining the safety of our guests, team members and protecting our property.”
Rodriguez says NELP has identified something like Target’s policy as a supplemental ‘ban the box’ provision for places that already have some type of protection for those with criminal records.
“To be able to reach contractors, vendors, and even private employers is really where we’re seeing the next wave and where we’re trying to focus in,” she said.
They’re also looking to expand the definition of what the box means. It’s still early in 2014, but already, San Francisco’s board of supervisors has approved an effort to further extended its ban the box policy to include housing. Advocates have the box on food stamp applications in their sights as well. Indianapolis looks to be the next major city that will ban the box for employers. The rule there, if approved, would be that any office place of the government or funded by government money (contractors and subsidized businesses alike) wouldn’t be able to ask about convictions until after the first round of interviews. And at least one more state is going the way of ‘ban the box.’ Delaware has a promising piece of legislation wending its way through the state legislature that would similarly restrict ‘the box’ question during a first round of interviews.
“At least it will get you in the door,” former prison Richard Blackston told a local TV station there. “And you can be able to sit down and explain yourself…. versus the door being closed in your face before you even get to talk for yourself.”
In a sense, banning the box is more a sentiment than a singular policy: It gets people to change how they think of ex-offenders; convinces society to see them as people who may have done some bad things but are trying to get good; makes it fair that when someone’s done their time, they’re able to move on without getting bogged down by unnecessary questions.
“When you win a ban the box law or ordinance, you don’t just change those practices,” says Steve O’Neill, Executive Director for Inter-state Organizing at EPOCA, “you also kind of put a stake in the ground and say, yeah you can’t just discriminate against everyone with a criminal record. There is value to considering somebody with a criminal record. And that helps to start to shift the culture. “