Ban the Box: Creating a Path Forward for America’s Formerly Incarcerated Population

James Chan, New Leaders Council Tampa Bay

Part fifteen of The New Leader series The Arc of Justice: Examining the Failures of the Criminal Justice System and the Hope of Progressive Reforms.

Criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan issue in this country, with 91 percent of Americans believing change is needed. This is especially true in Florida. On November 6, 2018, nearly 65 percent of Floridians voted to restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions when they voted YES on Amendment 4, despite its implementation being delayed by the Republican-controlled legislature. This was an incredible win for democracy and criminal justice reform supporters. Voters overwhelmingly want to give these returning citizens a second chance. But second chances do not begin and end with voting rights. In order to create a system where justice-involved individuals have a real chance of succeeding, we must implement policies that help them re-integrate into society, such as ban the box legislation.

The Ban the Box campaign and its supporters are urging employers to consider a job candidate’s qualifications first before taking into consideration someone’s conviction or arrest record. The “box” referred to in this campaign is the box on applications for jobs, colleges, housing, etc, that people check to affirm that they have never been convicted or arrested. Thirty-three states and over 150 cities and counties that have now adopted ban the box policies. These policies do not keep employers from considering an arrest or conviction record. Rather, ban the box legislation pushes these considerations later in the process so that individuals are given a fair shot at jobs based on their qualifications, and not the stigma of past arrest and incarceration records. Of the 33 states with ban the box policies in place, 11 have extended, through policies or laws, the removal of conviction history questions from job applications beyond public sector employment and into private employment applications.

My home state of Florida lags behind the majority of states because it lacks a statewide ban the box law. However, some of Florida’s largest cities and counties have adopted ban the box, including Tampa and Jacksonville. These policies are for public sector jobs only, in part because of the tremendous sensitivity around state mandates for private employers.

Here’s why ban the box policies matter:

According to the Center for American Progress, approximately 30 percent of adults in the U.S. have a criminal record. Furthermore, people of color make up a large number of these adults due to racial and ethnic biases at every point in the criminal justice system. People of color comprise two-thirds of the state and federal prison population even though they only make up about 40 percent of the country’s population.

Without the protection of ban the box legislation, the applications of people with felony convictions often go unconsidered. This directly prevents these individuals from gaining employment and contributing to their families, their communities and the economy. America has a long-held pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but when direct employment barriers affect 30 percent of our population, how is self-sufficiency even an option?

A reliable workforce is not only beneficial to the employee and employer, but also to society. A 2008 Urban Institute study found that formerly incarcerated individuals who earned $10 per hour post release compared to $7 post release were 50 percent less likely to recidivate. Returning citizens who are able to financially support themselves are less likely to return to prison, with the added long-term benefits of being a lawful taxpayer in society. But without ban the box legislation in states such as Florida, formerly incarcerated individuals are discriminated against before receiving a fair shot at employment.

Many of the country’s ban the box policies only impact public sector employment. Only 11 states have policies that apply to the private sector. States should pass legislation to ensure that ban the box laws extend to private sector employers to allow more returning citizens to be employed.

Floridians are united in wanting to reintegrate returning citizens, and politicians in Tallahassee should start listening and stop delaying the implementation of Amendment 4. Americans believe in the power of the second chance. When someone serves their time, they deserve the opportunity to contribute to their families and their communities. State legislatures must advocate for expanding ban the box legislation as well as the complementary policies that would further ensure those with conviction or arrest histories can be contributing citizens. Conservatives and progressives can agree that people deserve second chances, that they deserve to be judged by their qualifications and merits, and that they should be able to work if they so desire.

James Chan works to ensure that the voices of the New American Majority are heard in the democratic process, especially in Florida. He currently serves as the NLC Tampa Bay Chapter Co-Director and is a member of the NLC National Programs Committee.