Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Law Won

job-application

(Photo: Krasnopolski/Shutterstock)

Ban the Box: Employing Former Felons Will Improve the Economy and Public Safety

• April 07, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Krasnopolski/Shutterstock)

Lawmakers in 10 states and over 50 cities have already enacted Ban the Box policies, eliminating the check-box that asks about an applicant’s criminal record. It’s time for Congress to follow suit.

Seven years ago, I hired Ron Sanders, an unemployed, single dad with a felony record, to work in a community health center. Like the majority of those who are incarcerated, Ron had been addicted to drugs and homeless. But even when those days were long over and he had completed a college certificate program to become a community health worker, he still couldn’t get a job. He couldn’t even get an interview.

An overwhelming 65 million Americans with criminal records face significant barriers to employment each day. Most applications for employment include a box that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Check the box, and nowadays, the application most likely goes to the trash. In 2009, a team of Princeton and Harvard researchers found that having a criminal record in New York city reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. It doesn’t matter if you finished serving your time, committed a crime decades ago, or whether the crime would impact the quality of your work.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the background check industry skyrocketed. In 2007, private intelligence companies, like ChoicePoint, reported $253 million in employee-screening revenue and, last year alone, the FBI preformed a record 16.9 million criminal background checks, a six-fold increase from over a decade ago. Economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimate that the United States has at least 12 million individuals with criminal records of working age, who account for about 1.5 percent of our unemployment rate, costing the economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.

Last year alone, the FBI preformed a record 16.9 million criminal background checks, a six-fold increase from over a decade ago.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 10 states and over 51 cities have already enacted Ban the Box policies, eliminating the check-box that asks about an applicant’s criminal record. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also ruled this year that employers cannot deny people jobs based on arrest or conviction records. Despite the groundswell of legislative action by states, Congress has not followed suit.

Enacting Ban the Box policies will not only improve the economy but public safety as well. For the hundreds of thousands of individuals who return home each year from prison, their chance of returning back to prison is two times lower if they have a job. As one Minnesota Republican state senator argued “unless there is some hope that [returning prisoners will] be able to … earn a wage, be able to support their loved ones—the recidivism rate of these individuals is extremely high.”

As an employer who has hired formerly incarcerated individuals to work in health care settings, I know seeing individuals for their full set of skills and experiences, and not just their check-box, makes good sense, no matter your politics. At the Transitions Clinic Network, a national network of community health centers who care for individuals recently released from prison, we have found that training former prisoners to become community health workers who serve patients returning home from prison reduces unnecessary emergency department utilization by 50 percent and, thus, reduces the costs of the health care system.

Let’s be clear. Ban the Box laws do not forbid employers from doing background checks. They only put off the criminal history question until later in the hiring process, when a person has been deemed otherwise qualified for the job. The laws also don’t change who is permitted to work in law enforcement, childcare or health care jobs. Absolutely none of this changes under Ban the Box laws. What changes is that job applicants get a fairer shot at gaining employment, regardless of their criminal history.

Before Ron got the job with me, he applied for seven jobs in San Francisco, got discouraged, and stop applying. In each application, he checked a box reporting his past felony conviction. Ron did not get a single interview, but the employers also did not have a chance to interview Ron and consider him for his own merits. Ron now leads a national network for community health workers caring for individuals returning home from prison. He is also housed, financially supporting his family, paying taxes, and in his own words, can finally “step out of the closet about his past.” Allowing former felons to prove their qualifications first and explain their convictions later gives these individuals who have already paid their debt to society a second chance.

Late last year, Senator Marco Rubio introduced the “Healthcare Privacy and Anti-Fraud Act,” which would bar individuals with felony convictions from working as navigators for Obamacare health exchanges. The rationale given for the legislation is “to combat fraud and protect consumers … [from] identify theft.” But the subtext is that individuals with criminal records, regardless of their ability to assist others in obtaining insurance, should not be able to assist their community and provide for themselves and their families.

As a nation, we cannot afford to exclude 65 million individuals from the workforce based on a box alone. Congress must Ban the Box entirely for the economic health, public safety, and our own moral standing.

Emily Wang
Emily Wang is an assistant professor of medicine at Yale University and co-founder of the Transitions Clinic Network. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.