Skip Navigation
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.