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Expert Brief

Ban the Box

In his essay for Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, Cornell William Brooks urges an end to racial profiling and a ban on “the box” that prevents former offenders from securing gainful employment.

Published: April 28, 2015

The tragic killings of unarmed African-Amer­ican men Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 are a grim reminder of our coun­try’s inef­fect­ive and unjust crim­inal justice system.

Racial profil­ing is a corros­ive poli­cing prac­tice harm­ing black and brown communit­ies at both ends of the crim­inal justice system. At the front end, racial profil­ing can lead to tragic and sense­less deaths of unarmed black men and women, as was the unfor­tu­nate case with Michael Brown and Eric Garner. More regu­larly, racial profil­ing results in men and women of color being dispro­por­tion­ately repres­en­ted in our pris­ons and jails. At the back end, racial profil­ing takes an economic toll on communit­ies of color, as upon release from prison, persons with an arrest record are often disqual­i­fied from find­ing employ­ment and finan­cially contrib­ut­ing to their community.

The NAACP stands at the fore­front of address­ing racial profil­ing and its imme­di­ate and long-term impacts, both with polit­ical action and advoc­at­ing for policy reforms — like “ban the box” legis­la­tion, which urges employ­ers to remove from their hiring applic­a­tions the box applic­ants with a crim­inal record are required to check. Our efforts aim to move our coun­try toward estab­lish­ing a fairer crim­inal justice system and elim­in­at­ing barri­ers for formerly incar­cer­ated people to work, which can trans­form our neigh­bor­hoods and make our communit­ies safer and econom­ic­ally stronger.

Racial profil­ing is neither an effi­cient nor correct­ive tool of poli­cing. In 2011, NYPD officers stopped nearly 800,000 people for alleged suspi­cious activ­ity. Nine out of 10 were inno­cent, 99 percent did not have a gun, and 9 out of 10 were black or Latino. Further­more, in 2011, black and Latino men between 14 and 24 years old made up 42 percent of those targeted by stop-and-frisk. That group makes up less than 5 percent of the city’s popu­la­tion.

Yet, over­whelm­ingly, people of color continue to be racially profiled. People with dreams, hopes, and aspir­a­tions are being locked and trapped in the bottoms of airtight cages of pris­ons and poverty. In 2012, there were an estim­ated 2.3 million people in U.S. jails and pris­ons — the dispro­por­tion­ate major­ity of whom are people of color. African Amer­ic­ans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. popu­la­tion, but are 37 percent of its pris­on­ers. Some survey data suggest that more than half of formerly incar­cer­ated people remain unem­ployed up to a year after their release from custody.  This means communit­ies of color, which are overly profiled and incar­cer­ated, are also acutely econom­ic­ally vulner­able.

Since its incep­tion, the NAACP has always stood on the front lines to ensure a soci­ety free from racial discrim­in­a­tion. Black lives matter. Indeed all lives matter.

Most recently, the NAACP helped galvan­ize national and inter­na­tional atten­tion around racial profil­ing and over­ag­gress­ive poli­cing prac­tices, which led to the death of Michael Brown, in a 134-mile march, “Jour­ney for Justice,” from Ferguson to Jeffer­son City, Mo. Our march­ers trudged up icy hills with boots often filled with blood­ied and blistered feet. For seven days, from sunup to sundown, protest­ers joined us as we marched through harsh weather for the cause of justice. We marched to call for reforms of police prac­tice and culture across the coun­try. Racial epithets were thrown our way from pass­ersby, but we marched. A mob shattered the window of our “support bus” after some threatened to shoot us, yet we contin­ued. And after march­ing 134 miles, we were in no way tired.

In no way was our trek from Ferguson to Jeffer­son City designed to be a solu­tion. It was a continu­ation of the many demon­stra­tions designed to make clear to the coun­try and the world that the NAACP and our allies will not stand down until we see systemic change in our crim­inal justice system and we bring an end to the over­ag­gress­ive poli­cing culture, partic­u­larly racial profil­ing, that has become common­place in communit­ies of color all across the coun­try.

That march is now completed, but we as a nation must continue to march forward. We march to arrive at a day when my two teen­age sons and black men and women across this nation will be judged by the content of their char­ac­ter, not the color of their skin. We press on to achieve a crim­inal justice system that holds officers account­able for their miscon­duct and strengthens neigh­bor­hoods while keep­ing all communit­ies safe.

Most of all, we march to end the plague of mass incar­cer­a­tion on our communit­ies. There are several ways the NAACP marches forward for systemic reform in our crim­inal justice system. Clearly, we must advance systemic reform and funda­mental change in how poli­cing is conduc­ted through­out our communit­ies, which includes requir­ing police to use body cameras, revis­ing the equip­ping of police with milit­ary hard­ware, promot­ing diversity on the force, ending the use of major force in cases involving minor offenses, and, of utmost import­ance, passing legis­la­tion that ends racial profil­ing at the federal, state, and local levels.

But there is one often over­looked consequence of today’s system of racial profil­ing and mass incar­cer­a­tion that must become a more prom­in­ent part of the crim­inal justice reform conver­sa­tion: the economic toll on communit­ies of color. Much of this harm is caused by a box on job applic­a­tions.

The impacts of racial profil­ing do not end with an arrest. Long after a person receives an arrest record, and has even repaid their debt to soci­ety, he or she can be poten­tially sentenced to a life of economic insec­ur­ity. With 70 million Amer­ic­ans with a record and 2.3 million incar­cer­ated nation­ally, every­one knows someone with a record — from the studi­ous under­grad with a high school shoplift­ing convic­tion, to the respec­ted middle manager guilty of a nearly forgot­ten soror­ity prank, to count­less scores of ambi­tious young men arres­ted but never convicted under “stop and frisk” poli­cing run amuck in our cities.

The NAACP has long cham­pioned reforms to improve the economic outcomes for former offend­ers, chiefly legis­la­tion to “ban the box,” which is gain­ing trac­tion. “Ban the box” is aimed at urging employ­ers to remove from their hiring applic­a­tions the check box that asks if applic­ants have a crim­inal record. Its purpose is to enable ex- offend­ers to display their qual­i­fic­a­tions in the hiring process before having to disclose their crim­inal records.

A crim­inal convic­tion — or an arrest record — should not auto­mat­ic­ally sentence a person to a life of unem­ploy­ment or under­em­ploy­ment. Legis­la­tion to “ban the box” should be imple­men­ted in all states and at the federal level. Without such legis­la­tion, African Amer­ic­ans will forever be a perman­ent under­class in the United States and mass incar­cer­a­tion will continue to hold back the economic growth of our men and our communit­ies.

Accord­ing to Harvard soci­olo­gist Devah Pager, having a crim­inal record decreases the like­li­hood of a white male job applic­ant getting called back for an inter­view by at least 50 percent. For black men, the rate is even 40 percent worse than for white men. A man with a record of incar­cer­a­tion will lose $100,000 of income in his prime earn­ing years. Not surpris­ingly, formerly incar­cer­ated people lower the national employ­ment rate as much as 0.9 percent; male employ­ment as much as 1.7 percent; and those of less-educated men as much as 6.9 percent. This jobless­ness costs at least $57 billion nation­ally and annu­ally.

One in four adult Amer­ic­ans with a crim­inal record are reminded whenever they fi out a job applic­a­tion that states: “Please check the box, if you have ever been arres­ted or convicted of a crime.” This tiny box is a massive economic chal­lenge to both job applic­ants and busi­nesses.

The economic chal­lenge starts with today’s ubiquit­ous digital tech­no­logy. Anyone’s crim­inal record is access­ible to anyone anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger across a screen. These Inter­net records, no matter how old or inac­cur­ate, have digital eternal life. For employ­ers protect­ing busi­ness repu­ta­tions, work­place safety, and staff qual­ity, crim­inal record access is crit­ical.

Click here to read the entire book, Solu­tions: Amer­ican Lead­ers Speak Out On Crim­inal Justice.

Once a person with a record checks the box, the employ­ment process often ends imme­di­ately — regard­less of what the record actu­ally says. Applic­a­tions with checked boxes are often trashed unread.

Employ­ers who blindly screen out applic­ants by the box hurt both busi­nesses and applic­ants. The major­ity of people with crim­inal records have neither spent time in prison nor commit­ted a felony or viol­ent crime. Many are not guilty of any crime at all. Most have been arres­ted, but not convicted. Moreover, of those convicted, most have only been convicted of nonvi­ol­ent and often minor crimes.

The misuse of crim­inal records by some employ­ers is not only an economic chal­lenge but also a moral chal­lenge. Harvard soci­olo­gist William Julius Wilson has long writ­ten empir­ic­ally, eloquently, and sadly about what happens to poor communit­ies when their citizens aren’t able to work. Jobless­ness frus­trates not only the abil­ity and ambi­tion to hold a job, but also the abil­ity and perhaps the aspir­a­tion to raise a family respons­ibly.

Imagine the possible moral consequences of employer policies that impede the abil­ity of liter­ally millions of people to compete fairly for work. Many employ­ers, employ­ees, and parents believe that work is not merely economic activ­ity but a moral exer­cise. Work and even the abil­ity to compete for work can imbue the young with discip­line, ambi­tion, an aver­sion to crime, and the aspir­a­tion to start a family respons­ibly.

Using the box to unfairly screen out qual­i­fied applic­ants, with minor convic­tions or mere arrests, not only affects them getting jobs, but also build­ing char­ac­ter, form­ing famil­ies, and contrib­ut­ing to the community. For example, a child who sees a parent work­ing — or even compet­ing for work — gets a moral lesson in respons­ib­il­ity.

“Ban the box” legis­la­tion would move the box off the applic­a­tion and post­pone (but not elim­in­ate) a crim­inal back­ground inquiry. This prac­tical policy has already been adop­ted by our nation’s largest public employer, the federal govern­ment; the nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart; and several states, includ­ing Geor­gia. Both Wal-Mart and Geor­gi­a’s adop­tion of the “ban the box” policy were pursu­ant to persist­ent campaign­ing by the NAACP and our coali­tion part­ners. This policy will allow job applic­ants first to be considered and compete on their qual­i­fic­a­tions — then be asked about and assessed on any crim­inal record. Return­ing citizens who gain employ­ment are more than one- third less likely than their coun­ter­parts to recidivate and are more capable of turn­ing their lives around perman­ently.

Now is the time to bring an end to unjust policies and poli­cing strategies and strive toward both indi­vidual culp­ab­il­ity and collect­ive respons­ib­il­ity. Ending racial profil­ing and passing “ban the box” legis­la­tion would be major trans­form­at­ive steps in the right direc­tion. We call on those we have elec­ted to office to become our part­ners in the fight for equal­ity and fair­ness. Now is the time to ensure that all communit­ies can live safely — safe from viol­ence both at the hands of crim­in­als and at the hands of police. Upon release from prison, indi­vidu­als must have the chance for employ­ment; the chance to support them­selves, their famil­ies, and their communit­ies; and a fair chance to live econom­ic­ally product­ive lives.

Click here to read the entire book, Solu­tions: Amer­ican Lead­ers Speak Out On Crim­inal Justice.